Reviewed by Catharine Lumby
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Question focused on in this response:
- What do Australians think of mass media and media power in Australia? by David Denmark
Australian Social Attitudes sat on my desk for a mere two hours before I dipped into it. I was completing a book on debates around children, family values and media consumption and I had a list of questions about contemporary attitudes to a host of issues. I was anticipating a dreary trawl through a range of databases and sociology texts. A mere hour later I’d plugged most of the gaps in the manuscript using only the book at hand.
The first and most important thing to say about Australian Social Attitudes is that it is an immensely useful book which actually lives up to the blurb on its back cover that claims it “will prove an excellent resource for students, teachers, researchers, and policy makers”. It is crisply written, clearly structured and it covers a wide range of subjects in coherent and relevant manner. It is, in short, one of those books you know will never stay back on your shelf for long.
The second thing to say about this volume is that it makes a potentially very important contribution to Australian public life and debate. We live in an era of polemics and punditry, where practically anyone can be dubbed an ‘expert’ on what ‘ordinary’ Australians think and live. Media producers tend to pay scant attention to the methodology of research or to the qualifications of those who conducted it. The result is a proliferation of constantly conflicting claims about Australian social attitudes and life. Australian Social Attitudes is a book which cuts through the white noise and gives an authoritative overview of trends in social attitudes and ways of living.
Of course, there is a downside to this breadth. The authors are forced to generalise and to talk, at times, in terms which cry out for greater qualification. To give just one example, in a chapter on the mass media the author David Denemark asks whether Australians believe television violence makes Australia more violent. He finds, not surprisingly, that many people believe it does even though a wide body of research has established there is little evidence for this proposition. Inhibited, no doubt, by space and time constraints, Denemark necessarily poses the question about television violence, and indeed talks about the phenomenon, in generic terms. And yet, as he doubtless realises, it’s ultimately meaningless to talk about television violence as if it was one thing. There is violence in almost every televisual genre from cartoons to current affairs programs. There is evidence that viewers tend to be inured to violence in genres they regularly view. The question must then be asked as to whether it’s the idea of television violence rather than the fact of it which Australians take a dim view of. This is a more nuanced question of course and it introduces a level of detail which would be impossible to replicate in every area of the book. But it is important to note the limitations of such an ambitious overview.
That said, this is an important book and one which provides us with important insights into what Australians think about pivotal issues. It represents an admirable engagement with the community on the part of key social and political scientists which draws on a deep well of academic expertise but channels that expertise in relevant and engaging manner. I, for one, hope this is the first of many such volumes.
Australian Social Attitudes: the First Report was published by UNSW Press, Sydney in 2005. ISBN 0 86840 671 6.
Catharine Lumby is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney. Her most recent book, co-edited with Elspeth Probyn, is Remote Control: New Media, New Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2003).