Inside Story

How the machine works

Renowned sociologist Raewyn Connell takes stock

Sean Scalmer Books 31 July 2023 1878 words

“I think of writing as a craft,” says Connell. Groovehall

On 25 June this year, at the 20th World Congress in Sociology, Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell received the International Sociological Association’s award for excellence in research and practice. The award is conferred only every four years and Connell was the third recipient, following two renowned sociologists, Immanuel Wallerstein (2014) and Nira Yuval-Davis (2018). Though the award received a little less attention than the AFL’s Brownlows or the NRL’s Dally Ms, it is a very substantial honour. Connell’s latest book, published around the time of the award’s conferral, helps to explain the recognition.

Research, Politics, Social Change is a collection of Connell’s writing spanning five decades. It is not a Greatest Hits, as she assures readers in the first sentence of her introduction, for “how do we know what’s the greatest or the best?” Neither is it a “life history,” for though Connell reflects on the personal and social contexts of her selected articles, her account of these matters is rendered only with a broad brush. Rather, the book is conceived as a kind of portrait of Connell’s research trajectory, methods of work and place in the world. She calls it, with modesty and detachment, a “case study”: “a collection of the changing work of one researcher.”

What are the principles that guided her selection? The collection is drawn from articles written for journals, making the sampled writings relatively self-contained. It focuses on “specific pathways” of research pursued over a number of years. She identifies five: the making of masculinities; theories of gender; examinations of class structure; social issues in education; and the global economy of knowledge.

Each of the five sections contains two papers: an “early” article that usually captures one of Connell’s first interventions in a field of knowledge and a “late” article (usually published twenty or more years after the first) that registers the changing nature of this field and its context, as well as Connell’s creative responses to these transformations. Papers are prefaced by new introductions in which Connell recounts the precise context of composition and reception, and sometimes muses on the weaknesses and limitations of the earlier work.

The exception to this elegant mode of organisation is a sixth area: “fieldwork.” Connell’s scholarship is identifiable for its blending of empirical research — often based on interviews and especially “life histories” — with theoretical writing. In order to better capture this aspect of her approach, she includes in a dedicated chapter extracts from three fieldwork-based projects. The selections all date from research published in the first decade of the twenty-first century: a study of gender in organisational life (2006), another of managers as business intellectuals (2010), and a third of a gender transition (2010, though based on an interview undertaken in the later 1980s). These pieces ensure a representative sampling of Connell’s scholarship and a rounded insight into the methods behind her theoretical creativity.

Connell’s contributions to the study of gender, class, education and knowledge are already widely available. In the age of digital scholarship, her research — including the papers collected together in Research, Politics, Social Change — is within reach from any desktop with subscription access to major research databases. As I sit down to compose this review, Google Scholar informs me that she has been cited more than 128,000 times and also provides links to the chains of discussion she has helped to elicit. What, then, is the value of a collection of papers that likely readers might access by other means?

The digital revolution that provides easier access to scholarship also decontextualises each contribution: it is simply a blue link on a white background. The risk of such decontextualisation is heightened with Connell’s research, for she crosses the boundaries of disciplinary and sub-disciplinary specialism. Few scholars dedicated to the study of “class” followed her analysis of “gender” so closely; admirers of her examination of the global sociology of knowledge, published over the past twenty years, are mostly unaware of her still influential studies of a class structure in Australian history, pursued from the early 1970s.

Research, Politics, Social Change brings these varied contributions together. It thereby empowers a consideration of the central features of Connell’s scholarship: the elements that typify the “Connell case.” This is research committed in its aims; practice-oriented; propelled by theoretical insight; democratic in method; and accessible in presentation. The combination is rare. A pleasure and a value of this text is to observe these impulses at work in writings on otherwise disparate topics, spread out across many decades.

Connell explains in her opening pages that her undergraduate training was in an empiricist-minded history department, detached from social problems, and that she turned to the newer social sciences as a means of producing knowledge “relevant to social justice.” The problems she has tackled have consistently grown out of struggles for social betterment, especially struggles against inequalities of class, gender and empire. She has sought not only to analyse social structure, but also to consider how it might be transformed.

In the pursuit of these aims, Connell rejects the customary division between “applied” and “basic” research, and pursues a form of social science that is attuned to practice but also distinguished by a theoretical ambition. Her focus is invariably on “things actually done” in specific situations, whether that be the work of the teacher, the ways in which men interact with each other, or the activities of the business entrepreneur. This means that her social research does not seek to sketch out static categories — what she calls the “geometry” of social life — but rather to focus on its “fluid dynamics.” For Connell, like the historian E.P. Thompson, a “structure” in social life, like class or gender, is not a “machine”; it is rather “the way the machine works.”

Connell’s respect for history and for the import of time in social process is clearly evident, but she offers much more than a close description of reality-in-movement, for she also proclaims that “theory matters.”

How? The answer reflects her understanding of “theory.” Connell presents the activity of theorisation as an attempt to build bridges between “different contemporary realities” and between “present reality” and “future possibility.” The theorist moves “beyond the given” in some way, especially through processes of conceptualisation, and through the development of new research methods and paradigms of explanation.

It is through a theoretically informed examination of practice that the analyst of social structure is able to discern “internal pressures” and “tensions,” to identify “potentials for change” and even to formulate new versions of “political strategy.” Theory matters, because it helps us to better comprehend our social world, and thereby to change it.

The approach is thrillingly vindicated in Connell’s pathbreaking analyses collected across this volume. In her theorising of class and gender, Connell rejected the 1970s static accounts of “class structure” and “sex roles” for dynamic studies of how social relations of dominance are made and remade over time. In her studies of education, she showed how a focus on a “disadvantaged” fragment of the school community made this fragment into a “problem” and obscured the operation of power across the school and the curriculum. In her examinations of the production of knowledge, she uncovered the making and remaking of intellectual dominance through processes of elevation and exclusion.

These insights offered new possibilities of change, even if these were not always pursued, highlighting especially the opportunity for radical alliances and network-building that transcended the quest for technical reforms.

For many, “theory” can imply over-abstraction, self-indulgence and self-importance. But Connell has a much more democratic understanding of the act of theorisation and of the creation of knowledge. She demonstrates across this volume a democratic faith in the capacity of humans outside the ivory tower to think about their world with subtlety and insight.

Her early works of gender analysis draw from the activist knowledge of women’s liberation and gay liberation. Her examination of education and inequality foregrounds the knowledge that teachers produce. She draws from fiction in an effort to understand gender (citing Chinua Achebe and Patrick White, among others). And, especially in her later work concerned with “Southern Theory,” she emphasises the valuable knowledge produced by the subjects of colonialism on the periphery but systematically excluded by the intellectual authorities of the metropole. Such a democratic faith is evident even in her research methods. The method of life-history interviews, central to her scholarship, is distinguished by the space it grants to participants to provide their own, detailed accounts of events and experiences.

It is an extension of a democratic faith and a commitment to political change that Connell seeks to write in a clear and accessible manner. She announces in the introduction that “I think of writing as a craft” and she deliberately cultivates a “clear” and “unpretentious” style. The nature of a problem is stated directly, key terms are defined, evidence is provided, arguments are sustained. Connell claims to have learned her style “mainly from the historians I admire.” But there are distinctive touches: a heightened awareness of the reader (“Don’t worry folks, we’re nearly home,” she writes towards the end of one long theoretical elaboration); a sometimes conversational tone (“I am half joking…”); an unusual fondness for the exclamation point (!). This insistence on clear writing helps readers to understand Connell’s theorisation of social process. It has also helped her to win a wide audience and to enjoy an influence outside the corridors of the academy.

Connell’s introductions to particular papers are marked by self-criticism: “Looking back, it is easy to see its limitations”; “I made some mistakes”; “I fear some misunderstandings.” The self-criticism is most persistent with regard to an alleged inattention to colonialism and its implications for knowledge.

This is not performative breast-beating, for it underpins one of her major preoccupations over the past thirty years: a consideration of the ways in which the unequal relations between metropole and periphery have shaped social science, and an attempt to initiate the discipline’s decolonisation. Connell has pursued this process through a critique of “classical” social theory, by revaluating Southern Theory, and by analysing and promoting sites and networks of knowledge production outside of the Global North.

The project is incomplete, of course, but Connell’s attempts to help formulate an account of what she calls the “global economy of knowledge” are both exciting and important. As with her earlier work on class and gender, they also combine theoretical and historical exploration with practical attempts to forge connections outside of the universities, and to build alliances for change.

Reflection on the “Connell case” will certainly incite admiration among readers concerned with social justice, hopeful that social science might contribute to its achievement. To my eyes it is remarkable how consistently Connell has maintained her approach to politically engaged social research, and how fruitful the results have been.

In its collection and presentation of this scholarship, Research, Politics, Social Change not only shares this research, it also more fully discloses the methods and approaches that have made it possible. This service to readers will also inspire those who share a desire to use social science in the quest for a more just and equal world. •

Research, Politics, Social Change
By Raewyn Connell | Melbourne University Press | $40 | 256 pages