The history of TASA would not be complete without consideration of the lively contributions of its Thematic Groups. There are twenty of these within TASA today. Most are recent creations – since 2005 – though a handful have long been part of sociology’s history as it grew into a formal discipline in Australia. The first and most enduring Thematic Group to emerge was the Health Sociology Section, and the sustained efforts of its many members since the late 1960s have ensured the institutionalisation of what is now an important specialist field (Willis 1991; Willis and Broom 2004).
An interest in health and medical sociology was certainly apparent in the meetings of the Canberra Sociological Society from 1958, but a more formal special interest group was established shortly after the formation of TASA’s predecessor, the Sociological Association of Australia and New Zealand (SAANZ). This interest group became the Medical Sociology Section in 1967. Katy Richmond, the Section’s first convener, with assistance from her colleague Rosemarie Otto, brought together a diverse grouping of health professionals, many of whom were beyond the formal discipline of sociology itself, then still in its incipience in Australia. The Section’s initial meetings were held monthly in inner city Melbourne. These proved a productive site for the initial development of health sociology in Australia, gathering the small sprinkling of health-minded sociologists of the time into a dynamic relationship with social workers, psychiatrists and other health professionals (Richmond 2010; Collyer 2012a:65,125).
In the 1980s, the Section began to extend geographically into state branches across the country. Eventually most state and territory branches had their own convenors, and held regular meetings bound by a national constitution – though the process of election and representation was often informal. By the 1990s the Section was often referred to as the Health and Medical Section (perhaps reflecting the changing interests of the Convenors and members); and by the 2000’s was more regularly referred to as the Health Section. A tradition developed of holding an annual ‘Health Day’ of guest speakers and seminars, often on the day before or after the main TASA conference. Some of the more memorable of these include a visit to Fraser House at the North Ryde Mental Hospital organised by psychiatrist and sociologist Neville Yeomans. This took place in about 1964, according to Katy Richmond. More recent events include a day at Lorne on Victoria’s coast (where Michael Pusey delightfully entertained us all), another at Coriole in 2000 – a winery south of Adelaide – and a visit to the Old Mental Hospital at Beechworth in Victoria in 2004. The Health Sociology Section became the hub of health sociology in Australia, helping it become a significant intellectual field in its own right—especially for women, whose growing presence in the discipline was beginning to be felt strongly (Collyer 2012a:132).
In 1991, the Health Sociology Section and the Health Sociology Research Group at La Trobe University, harnessed the significant membership base built in the preceding decades to support Australia’s first health sociology journal, the Annual Review of Health Social Sciences (re-named the Health Sociology Review from 2002). (History of the journal.) The birth of the journal came about as a result of the recommendations of a 1990 workshop ‘The Social Sciences and Health Research’ sponsored jointly by the National Health and Medical Research Council, SAANZ, the Public Health Association, and the Australian Society for Medical Anthropology (Daly and Kellehear 1991). The journal was initially edited by Jeanne Daly and Allan Kellehear, with the editorship thereafter changing regularly and the journal supported by the editors’ institutions and the Section’s membership. Early (hard copy) editions of the journal contain the membership directories of ‘active health social scientists’ across Australia and New Zealand. These directories were part of a broader effort to build health social science expertise and attract research funding in a context of scientism, positivism and the domination of biomedicine (see Daly and Kellehear 1991).
From 1992, the Health Sociology Section networked its members through an electronic email-based newsletter called eSocHealth. This was edited by Chris King and in 2000 the newsletter developed into a website hosted by La Trobe University and formally adopted by TASA (Germov and McGee 2005:358; eSocHealth 2003). Though eSocHealth is no longer operating, the Health Section continues to thrive as TASA’s longest established special interest group, and consistently contributes a significant proportion of papers to TASA’s annual conferences.
There were of course two other early special interest groups which formed within, or in association with, SAANZ. These were the Sociology Teachers’ Section (1970) and the Women’s Section (1976). While the Sociology Teachers Section was short lived, the Women’s Section thrived as an important network within SAANZ (and later TASA). As a network, it provided a crucial foundation of support for the growing number of women involved in Australian sociology. The Women’s Section was established with a formal vote of a large number of women delegates at the 1976 SAANZ conference held at La Trobe University (Richmond 2005:60). Katy Richmond provided the initial impetus for the Section’s newsletter, with the first edition appearing in March 1979 under the editorship of Lois Foster (Richmond 2005:63; SAANZ Women’s Section Newsletter 1979, March:1). Until its last edition in 1991 (then as part of TASA), the newsletter offered an important forum for women involved in sociology to communicate and develop supportive networks throughout Australia (Richmond 2005:60). The newsletter was revived later in the 1990s, this time within Nexus (see for example the article by Marilys Guilleman in 1998). Also important in this respect was the annual Women’s day, organised by the Section. Like the Health Day, this often took place the day before the annual conference of SAANZ. The close friendship ties that formed or were maintained at these meetings were sufficient to energise several collaborative research projects and joint publications (Richmond 2005:60).
Before becoming officially part of TASA in 1991, the momentum behind the Women’s Section overflowed into a number of feminist reading groups, of which FIST (Feminists In Social Theory) was perhaps the most organised – with a constitution and monthly newsletter (1981-1985) (Richmond 2005:60). The group, who were members of SAANZ and referred to themselves as ‘fisters’, attended regular meetings on the campus of Swinburne University (FIST Newsletter, 1 October 1981). Their lively monthly discussions traversed new developments in feminist theory with the hope of precipitating what Patricia Gowland, in a FIST discussion paper, described as ‘a furious feminist ferment of discussion among the women of SAANZ’ (FIST Discussion Paper, 21st June 1981: 2). The tradition of the Women’s Day no longer continues at TASA, though a Women’s Breakfast or Women’s Evening may make a welcome appearance on the annual conference program.
In 2004, Malcolm Alexander from Griffith University presented a paper to the TASA Executive proposing the establishment of Thematic Groups, similar to the research committees of the International Sociological Association. These Groups, Malcolm Alexander suggested, would facilitate communication and collaboration between TASA members working in similar research or teaching areas, and assist with the organisation of annual conferences. In 2005, TASA members able to find at least 15 interested participants, were invited to form new Thematic Groups. Existing bodies, such as the Health Section with its history going back to 1967, immediately applied to become a Thematic Group with little more than a change of name. This was set in motion by the convenor, Eileen Clark. Other Groups, such as ‘Cultural Sociology’, ‘Media’, ‘Migration, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism’, and ‘Sociology of Economic Life’ (founded by Michael Gilding and Malcolm Alexander), were entirely new formations in 2005. ‘Mental Health’ was also founded at this time, though it eventually merged with the larger Health Group.
In 2006 two new Groups emerged, ‘Environment and Society’, and ‘Sociology of Indigenous Issues’. In 2007, ‘Teaching Sociology’ became a Thematic Group under the efforts of Helen Marshall, reviving an interest group which had had a long, if rather interrupted history since 1970. Three new Groups, formed in 2007, were ‘Crime and Governance’, ‘Work and Labour Studies’ (established by Suzanne Franzway), and ‘Mobilities’. This latter was dedicated to leisure, tourism, travel and sport research. It was started by Wendy Hillman, but is no longer in existence.
The following year, 2008, saw the birth of several new Groups: ‘Families, Relationships and Gender’, ‘Critical Disability Studies’ (with Genée Marks and Michael Bleasdale as inaugural convenors), and ‘Science, Technology and Knowledge’ (originally formed by Claire Donovan, but no longer operating as a Thematic Group of TASA). Also formed in 2008 was the ‘Applied Sociology’ Thematic Group. This had earlier incarnations also, at one stage having the title ‘Sociologists Outside Academe’. The Thematic Group’s first convenors were Zuleyka Zevallos and Christine Walker, and under current convenor Alan Scott retains its mission to provide a supportive network for sociologists who work in government or the private or community sectors rather than academe.
Three new Groups formed in 2009, ‘Risk Societies’, ‘Social Stratification’ and ‘Sociology of Education’, with the last of these established by Julie Matthews and Terri Seddon. The year 2010 saw two new Groups, ‘Rural Issues’ and ‘Sociology of Youth’, while 2011 saw only one, ‘Sociology of Religion’. In 2012 another new Group emerged, ‘Sociology of Emotions and Affect’ started up by Roger Patulny, Mary Holmes, and Jennifer Sinclair.
The day-to-day functioning of the Thematic Groups has become more formalised over time, with the convenors taking on a greater role in the organising of the annual conference and the editorship of its refereed papers. Many Groups have also taken advantage of the small annual grants available from the parent body to hold interim conferences, seminars and workshops under the sponsorship of TASA. These various events have greatly assisted with networking and facilitating communication within the special interest groups, and raised the public profile of both sociology and TASA. And from this brief history of TASA’s Thematic Groups, it is apparent that Malcolm Alexander’s proposal to establish these Groups was a good and timely imitative. Though a few have merged and others folded, many have demonstrated a resilience and continuing interest from the membership.