Anthony Giddens (Baron Giddens of Southgate) states that ‘Sociology is the study of human social life, groups, and societies and its subject is our own behaviour as social beings. Learning to think sociologically means cultivating the imagination. A sociologist is somebody who can break free from the immediacy of personal circumstances and put things in a wider context’. As an academic specialising in the sociology of organisations for 20 years, Professor Bruce Curtis has championed the sociological imagination in developing a sociology of New Zealand.
In his upcoming lecture in the University of Waikato Hamilton Public Lecture Series, happening on 1 October, Professor Curtis will start with a discussion of sociology as a problem-solving approach, which often generates counter-intuitive results. He will also make links with his own socialisation which sensitised him to particular sets of problems. Pierre Bourdieu called this form of socialisation ‘habitus’, the embodiment of cultural capital and ingrained habits due to our life experiences. For sociologists it is unproblematic that while the researcher always shapes the research, the research also shapes the researcher. Professor Curtis will discuss four areas of research that are significant to him and have figured in his development of a sociology of New Zealand.
He will first look at the study of agriculture in New Zealand, especially the export-oriented meat sector. As the son of a freezing worker, this was the most personally significant area of research and formed the basis of his PhD. However, the problems he identified at the start of his research differed to those he uncovered in the sector and which had shaped his own ‘common-sense’ understanding. In short, what was imagined as a struggle between bosses and unions in meat plants, turned out to be a by-product of farmers’ control of the sector.
Secondly, Professor Curtis will examine the study of gambling in New Zealand. If the study of agriculture was a conscious choice based on decades of socialisation, the study of gambling was the product of pure serendipity: picking up the phone in an empty office. However, the sociological imagination again produced unexpected results. A research project on the socio-economic impact of the licensed casinos in New Zealand became the basis for the study of the moral and institutional implications of ‘the stupid tax’, and highlighted the deficiencies of our understudying of gambling as opposed to Internet forms of gaming.
Thirdly, the university sector will be discussed, where biography clearly plays a role. This work has produced the sharpest reversal in terms of assumptions going into research and the conclusions drawn. For example, the Performance-based Research Fund which was perceived in 2003 as a threat to ‘traditional scholarship’, has in fact acted as one of its bulwarks. There are also clear definitional issues, foremost being the discussion of the ‘neo-liberal university’, but without any clear agreement about what this term means.
The last topic Professor Curtis will discuss is a study of neo-colonialism in New Zealand. This research synthesizes other sectoral and organisational studies. Much of contemporary scholarship focuses on New Zealand in terms of post-colonial debates, which centre on the transformation of a former colony. However, neo-colonialism is also at play here and may well be the more important trait.
Professor Curtis' lecture, Towards a Sociology of New Zealand, will take place on Tuesday 1 October at 5.45pm in the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Waikato.