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Social Sciences Week: Researcher Profile - Emeritus Professor David Rowe

Social Sciences Week: Researcher Profile - Emeritus Professor David Rowe

Sociologist and recipient of multiple Australian Research Council (ARC) grants, Emeritus Professor David Rowe, is optimistic about the future of social sciences, the positive impact they have on Australian social life, and has seen first-hand the importance of social science reflected in the recent 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Professor Rowe’s interest in sociology was piqued during his school years in England. At the time the discipline of sociology was a relatively new ‘idea’, it wasn’t taught in schools or many universities.

“The idea of the science of society — social history really interested me, looking at how people live, power relations, all that kind of thing. At the time I was growing up, sociology had a reputation for being a bit dangerous, a bit naughty, rebellious. And my Catholic headmaster said that he wouldn't give me a reference if I wanted to do sociology, which just made it even more exciting. So that’s why I did it and I've never looked back.”

Professor Rowe’s principal research interests revolve around contemporary media and popular culture, including popular music, and especially, media, sport and culture. His PhD was on the popular music industry because he was very into music, and he wanted to understand its social and cultural role.

“To be attached to something that was contemporary but from which I developed a historical sensibility, and something that was kind of happening to me, as a young person, to my generation, that is what motivated me.”

From popular music, his interests then expanded to the field of popular culture in general, which then led him into sport, in particular media sport. Professor Rowe has been involved in 10 ARC- funded projects over more than 20 years which have explored these and other phenomena.

“I think the highlight for me was probably my last one, as it was a huge study. I was part of a big team, and the project was called Australian Cultural Fields: National and Transnational Dynamics.”

This interdisciplinary Discovery project, awarded in 2014, provided a systematic overview of the relationships between Australians’ social backgrounds — gender, ethnicity, identity, occupation, social class, education — and cultural tastes and activities in music, the visual arts, sport, literature, television and heritage. It identified the ways and extent to which significant social divisions and inequalities marked participation, and explored their policy implications.

“Something I suppose I’ve always known from my early days as a social science scholar is that we, humans, often think that our preferences, our choices are made just by us as individuals, we’re all unique. We all think we’re different, we all think we’ve freely made these choices, but of course we haven’t because we’re all social beings with histories.”

“Social sciences always have a place because no technology operates on its own. It’s not produced on its own, it’s not used on its own. There are all these areas which are very arcane, very specialised, and they require a social scientific sensibility to make sense of them, to understand them, to shape decisions about how they are going to unfold,” Professor Rowe said.

Professor Rowe sites artificial intelligence as an obvious example of this relevance.

“There’s this idea that if you took artificial intelligence literally, then we don’t need humans anymore, as the supercomputers will do it. And that’s not true, as none of the scientific inquiry can take place without social input, without a full embrace of the social sciences.”

“As long as we have a society, there’ll be a role for social scientists, because if you go back to the foundation of a science of society, if we don’t have social science, then everything relies on what? It relies on impression, relies on someone's experience in some part of the world. It relies simply on sensation or prejudice or ignorance.”

During Social Sciences Week (4-10 September), Professor Rowe debated his greatest research interest, media sport, and in particular ‘Does sport unite or divide us?’ (The Great Debate: Does sport unite or divide us?.)

“When Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand won the hosting rights for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, I was going around telling everybody that I could in my field and in other fields that this was going to be huge. This will be the biggest event since the Sydney 2000 Olympics.”

Professor Rowe did a lot of work around the 2000 Olympics — with the assistance of one of his first ARC grants — on fandom, media and globalisation, and says it is likely that the Women’s World Cup will ultimately eclipse that event as a social spectacle in Australia.

“I knew it would be big. I didn't know how big. I don't think anybody quite got it. It quite clearly took people by surprise. It even surprised me that it was just astonishingly big. I have spent a lot of time over the past few months, attending academic events, panels, giving presentations, that kind of thing, and talking to the media, not just reporting the event, but the significance of it in its context.

“As you do in social sciences, you’re part of the phenomenon often that you are trying to analyse.  And in the case of my field, media sport, things change fast — media, sport, culture, social relations. They may stay the same for some time and then there's a sudden shift, a watershed moment. And I find myself talking about this Women’s World Cup being a watershed moment.

I don’t think we will ever go back to the kind of idea, which was very common, especially in the media, that women's sport doesn't sell. It does okay for the Olympics and that kind of thing, and then it’s put back in a box for another four years or so. I don't think that can ever happen again.”

Professor Rowe makes an impact by translating his research outcomes to stimulate public discussion amongst people who don’t have the privilege of researching.

When asked what he would like to leave as legacy, Professor Rowe mentioned professional contributions over the years to students, academe, policy, media and the wider public: “ultimately to leave some kind of positive legacy, however modest, I think that’s the best that any of us can hope for.”

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