Academic journal article Rural Society

Empty Shops in Australian Regional Towns as an Index of Rural Wellbeing

Academic journal article Rural Society

Empty Shops in Australian Regional Towns as an Index of Rural Wellbeing

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article addresses the question how one might know whether country towns are thriving, in a static state, or in decline, and also how one town compares to other towns. A simple Empty Shops Index is proposed to measure rural town wellbeing. Macro-level data from successive censuses traces broad changes, but what other means exist of evaluating the perceived or 'real' health of country towns? The importance of place and region in sociological thinking can be seen in Beilharz and Hogan's (2006) Australian society text. They mainstream 'towns and regions' as part of 'place', place being part of a tripartite analysis of 'place, time and division' used to examine contemporary social processes and institutional arrangements in Australia. While rural sociologists, geographers, planners and other researchers do not need to be told place is more than just about big cities, creative ways for examining, testing, or simply 'thinking about' regional and rural issues are always worth pursuing in order to better address rural and regional needs. An index, a 'composite measure that summarizes and rank-orders several specific observations and represents some more general dimension' (Babbie, 2007, p. 154), is only useful to the extent it adequately represents or correlates with the social phenomenon being investigated. When something as multi-faceted as rural health or rural wellbeing is the larger social reality being studied, there is inevitably a gap to some degree in representational accuracy.

The purpose of this exercise is to discern the perceived or real health of country towns. The multi-faceted concept of rural health, or rural wellbeing, is the larger social reality explored. Although 'health' is not formally defined here, in the present context it is understood as having economic, social, psychological, aesthetic and normative aspects, and only tangentially refers to health in the medical sense. This article describes an exploratory project to measure just one attribute among many that could be used, in various combinations, to measure this broad concept. The investigation described is exploratory for two reasons. First, an indicator such as that proposed, may establish itself over time as a useful proxy for a more comprehensive or synthetic basket of measures. Equally, it may prove not to be representative of the larger social phenomenon, of rural wellbeing, depending on the results of repeated investigation. This study made an initial attempt at how such a measure might be deployed. Second, because the exploratory purpose of the study utilised student researchers' home towns within a radius of Wodonga this allowed sufficient data to be gathered for a 'proof of concept methodology', but restricted a broader data collection process, described later.

An Empty Shops Index may simplify the complexity in understanding rural wellbeing, and thus gain some grasp, at least provisionally, on the complexity of understanding wellbeing. As Babbie (2007, pp. 153-154) observed, indexes can be 'efficient devices' for sociological analysis, constructed by accumulating 'scores assigned to individual attributes', in this case counting the number of empty shops in rural towns. An example of indexes used in this way is the 'Big Mac Index' (The Economist, 2009), describes as, 'The Economist's Big Mac index seeks to make exchange-rate theory more digestible. It is arguably the world's most accurate financial indicator to be based on a fast-food item'.

This index co-opts the simplicity and iconicity of the famous hamburger price as a measure of national economic performance. The underlying research explanation is offered in all seriousness, linking ready use for comparative analysis with accuracy in measuring currency shifts. Across a number of fields, this dual purpose of simplifying data and communication of complex phenomena remains the goal of deploying indexes.

BACKGROUND

Trends towards relative loss of population from rural and regional areas have been evident for decades (Keneley, 2004). …

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