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A very public sociology

Joseph Borlagdan, Brotherhood of St Laurence, University of Melbourne, TASA member

While there are a few exceptions, it’s rare to see Australian sociologists featured as talking heads on our television screens. TASA member Catherine Robinson chats with us about co-hosting and consulting on the SBS documentary ‘Filthy Rich and Homeless’. She reflects upon how the experience helped shape her identity as a public social researcher and her advice for engaging with the broader public.

Influencing and shaping the show

Joseph: Starting off with the SBS TV show, Filthy Rich and Homeless – can you tell us a bit about how that came about?

Catherine Robinson

Catherine: Well, a casting researcher from Blackfella Films rang my mobile and asked me to think about being involved; that’s how it worked. It’s a strange thing because I don’t consider myself an expert in the way that I think people want experts to be – particularly because of the focus that I’ve had in homelessness research, which is really on the experiential, the embodied.  I’ve got too much of a humanities bent to me; I’m not a social scientist. I emphasise that I’m a sociologist who also works into cultural geography, cultural studies and social policy.

I’m a sociologist who also works into cultural geography, cultural studies and social policy.

So this is a long way of saying it was a confronting thing for me to be approached as a ‘homelessness expert’ because that’s not how I saw myself.

Initially approached as a Series consultant, Catherine soon found herself being auditioned for the co-hosting role.

CR: I understand that of course Blackfella Films were talking to a number of people for the (co-hosting) role, but I was more interested in providing background information and support. They came back to me and said ‘We’re still interested in talking with you. Can we just catch up with you on Skype?’ This turned into an ‘audition’ of sorts, but I just saw it as a really important opportunity to shape the early stages of the Series – how they were thinking about what they were doing.

JB: I guess there’s also a whole genre of that, SBS has their version of Struggle Street, which received some criticism. Was that in the back of your mind when you wanted to be involved?

CR: Well, no it wasn’t. Because I’m just one of these people who never watches television. So, of course I’d never heard of Blackfella Films, never heard of anything they’d done. So it was more that if they’re going to do it anyway, how could I play a role in getting them to think about issues that I think Australia needs to know about? So always for me it was about influence and shaping–like you do with your students–their world view and their lens for how they’re seeing particular issues.

for me it was about influence and shaping–like you do with your students–their world view and their lens for how they’re seeing particular issues.

A public audience

JB: So you referred to yourself as a sociologist – do you have any thoughts about how you would be represented on the show as a sociologist?

CR: I did and it was interesting when it came to the titling as to how I would represent myself and I think in the end I requested ‘social researcher’. And in general in my goings about now, I tend to refer to myself as a social researcher, rather than a sociologist. Just because I think people understand ‘researcher’ and so they can bridge social researcher, but if I had to say ‘sociologist’, for many people it doesn’t tell them about who I am or what I might do.

JB: From my memory of the show, what struck me were the times where you brought in sociology, particularly people who were going through this personal experience and then you were really trying to bring it back to some broader structural issues.

I’m thinking even with the person who had been through crisis accommodation and was still talking about homelessness as a bit of a choice and a decision and you were trying to reframe that. Is that a message that you wanted to get across? Were there other messages like that that you were trying to get across through the show?

CR: I found it really challenging to think about key messages because it was live in the sense that I was in the moment, interacting with people and that was being recorded there and then. But yes, that was certainly how I saw my role and why I became part of the Series. In terms of my individual interactions with the participants, it was about helping them pan out from individual experience, to something broader and helping them understand the lived and structural context of homelessness – because, of course in ten days what the participants don’t get is the whole biography of suffering that sits behind homelessness.

So because I have done a lot of my work on long-term homelessness, I felt what I could bring was a sense of homelessness as an issue lived over the life course and to me that is such a powerful thing that Sociology can offer – a broader context for individual stories, but also an analytical frame through which to interpret these stories. I felt what I could bring was a sense of homelessness as an issue lived over the life course and to me that is such a powerful thing that Sociology can offer – a broader context for individual stories, but also an analytical frame through which to interpret these stories. 

I felt what I could bring was a sense of homelessness as an issue lived over the life course and to me that is such a powerful thing that Sociology can offer – a broader context for individual stories, but also an analytical frame through which to interpret these stories.

After the show, Catherine reflected upon her time in the public and contrasted that with her work in academia, leading to a sharpened focus on the audience for her work.

JB: What have you taken out of the show? Has it informed how you approach research, or think about your research now?

CR: Definitely. Having been an academic for 14 years, that was my identity. It was my life, you know? I’d been in the academic institution since I was 18; I was a full time academic by 27 – it’s all I’d ever done.  Filthy Rich and Homeless was filmed after a time of massive upheaval in my life, including my departure from UTS and Sydney, the birth of my third child, a move to Hobart and into the community sector. And then it aired very close to when my first project for the Social Action and Research Centre on highly vulnerable teens was released. This was a hugely challenging period of life, full of change and adjustments for my family and for how I understood myself as a professional and as a sociologist.

And in a way doing Filthy Rich and Homeless really helped me with that because it really dramatically brought home to me something I’d always struggled with as an academic at UTS. I’d always very strongly seen my role as a public intellectual, receiving public money – government money paid my wage – and UTS pushed itself as this, kind of community connected University. But I found I was so compromised in being able to deliver on any of that in the academic institution, mainly because of my teaching and administrative roles. And suddenly in the community sector with my own project I had both scope and responsibility for everything from directly briefing Ministers, to collaborating with the wider community sector, and also academic publishing – the whole suite. Also having capacity to add a media role into this also helped me. I was just reengaged and reminded about the world as an audience for my research work and not the academic scene as the audience for my work.  

I was just reengaged and reminded about the world as an audience for my research work and not the academic scene as the audience for my work.

Involvement in Filthy Rich and Homeless was just a wonderful exchange – particularly around ethics because I’ve always done work throughout my whole career with highly vulnerable populations. I did a training session for all the film crews on ethical engagement with people experiencing homelessness and trauma. So there was just this lovely transfer across different sectors happening, which made me feel really alive and again, thinking through this idea of a public intellectual, like someone who’s taking from what they’ve learnt and had the opportunity to learn through being engaged in the University and transferring that to professionals in other sectors who’ve not had necessarily that exposure and opportunity.

Then there is also the other issue of a public audience. And what absolutely amazed me – because I’m not on Facebook, I’d never been on Twitter –  suddenly there was this whole world…ordinary people were writing about Filthy Rich and Homeless and holding debates about homelessness and community services were engaged and sharing perspectives on their work…I was just amazed that it could trigger extraordinary exchange.

Public sociology as a ‘conversation with your community’

JB: What advice would you give to other sociologists who perhaps haven’t yet made that leap into engaging with media or turning towards being a bit more public-facing? What advice would you give to them?

CR: Basically, I think academics have extremely low self-esteem. And we arrive at that because we’re so aware of just how many knowledge gaps there are, how we would like to fill those knowledge gaps – so aware of all of the specialisms in our research. And indeed, that was how we started this conversation, with me saying ‘I absolutely did not feel like an expert in homelessness research’. When Blackfella Films contacted me I listed five other people. I said ‘no it’s not me, these are the academics that you need to talk to’.

But what I’ve learnt through the process of doing Filthy Rich and Homeless and then having to face what I can only describe as a media scrum around the vulnerable teens project was to just let go and say what I’d learnt; just what I’d learnt.

just let go and say what I’d learnt; just what I’d learnt.

And people could take it or leave it and I did not feel as though those interviews were an interview with a full stop. I didn’t try and perform expert knowledge.

The basic advice is to set aside this idea of mastery, or needing to feel like the master of a domain before one can talk about it and to think about it as a conversation with your community, as an open engagement with your community. 

think about it as a conversation with your community, as an open engagement with your community.

A conversation starter, it’s not the end point of a conversation; you’re not delivering a package of polished knowledge and sitting it there, because people actually ignore that. I think people really respond to – in terms of being able to reach an audience – they want you to be vulnerable.

I think probably some of the most powerful material I shared publicly about the vulnerable teens project was its personal effect on me as a researcher. Because that enabled the community to think: ‘if it’s had that kind of impact on her, imagine what the kids’ lives are like?’ Which was a very powerful way of communicating the sort of biographies of complex adversity that some children experience. So I think letting go of that idea that we have to be ‘masters’ and ‘leaders’ in our community in order to speak is really important. I think we’re trained and trained and trained to believe that we have to have mastered something to have the authority to say something.

I think letting go of that idea that we have to be ‘masters’ and ‘leaders’ in our community in order to speak is really important.

But the way for me to calm that down was to take some responsibility for kids themselves and think ‘well if I’m not going to say something right now about highly vulnerable teens, who’s it going to be?’

At the end of our interview, Catherine summed up her involvement on the show as an ‘exchange of effort.’

CR: The Filthy Rich and Homeless project was a really interesting one for me because I was speaking in someone else’s project. I’ve only ever done my own projects where I can control the outcome, the representations, the narratives. And even though it was a real leap of faith, it helped me do things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. My research would have never have featured on TV for four hours but Filthy Rich and Homeless did and I was able to contribute to that and in a way make it my own, in little moments. So I think there’s real value in a kind of generosity, in thinking about research, not as in research partners, or collaborations between institutions, but as an exchange of effort.

So I think there’s real value in a kind of generosity, in thinking about research, not as in research partners, or collaborations between institutions, but as an exchange of effort.

Blackfella Film’s effort was in the media world. That’s what their skill set was and they wanted my effort, my passion for the issue and then we made something really great that impacted people in a way that my research alone could not have done.

Dr Catherine Robinson is a Social Researcher with Anglicare Australia’s Social Action and Research Centre.

‘Filthy Rich and Homeless’ returns for a second series on SBS over three nights at 8.30pm, 14-16 of August.

(R to L) Indira Naidoo & Dr Catherine Robinson