Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Sociology at the University of Canterbury: A Very Partial History1

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Sociology at the University of Canterbury: A Very Partial History1

Article excerpt


Sociology at the University of Canterbury has contributed to the development of this field of social science in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally, but its vitality and energy has often been sustained by interdisciplinary connections and linkages across academia, the state sector, social research consultancies, community organisations and social movements. This article explores these connections through attention to the biographies of some of the staffand graduate students who have participated in this academic programme since 1958. It offers one participant's view of the shifting features of this network of people, social relationships and professional practices.

Exercising the sociological imagination - a positioned narrative

I enrolled in the first year of a master's degree in sociology at University of Canterbury in February 1972, one of six students doing course work that year.2 I was taught by Professor Bill Catton3 - the first Professor of Sociology at Canterbury and a committed environmentalist. Another key teacher was Richard Thompson (the founder of Sociology at University of Canterbury, local body politician and long-term critic of sporting contacts with South Africa). Peggy Koopman-Boyden, Bob Gidlow and Peter Davis were also my teachers - young, energetic, recently appointed academics who have all made long-term contributions to sociology and social science in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

After degrees in Social Anthropology and English at Rhodes University, South Africa, and exposure to courses in History, Political Science, Drama and French, Sociology was for me a new discipline. Following immersion in social theory, research methods, and courses on communities and social change, I was hooked. This was not the boring study of institutions represented in the sociology textbooks of my undergraduate friends,4 but a set of lively and critical tools to investigate and analyse social worlds, power, change and inequalities. By the end of that year, I was formulating a thesis project that related closely to my own life experience as a young mother and contemporary public debate about women's lives, parenting and paid work. However, while I was engaged by sociology, my reading and political networking transcended its boundaries. Sociology was the field in which I was located, but I was ambivalent about embracing it as a 'discipline'.

In this respect, I exemplified a defining characteristic of sociology at the University of Canterbury. Sociology has been taught with energy and enthusiasm since 1958, but often by academics not specifically trained as sociologists, or at least in undergraduate sociology. Frequently it has been a field of teaching, research and writing that has creatively spilled across the borders of other disciplines and been informed by social psychology, environmental sciences and resource management, psychosocial studies, demography, political science, philosophy, history, geography, social anthropology, economics, development studies, political economy, cultural studies, public policy, women's/feminist/gender studies, social policy, public health, media and communication studies, theology, science and technology studies, social administration and social work. As sociology in New Zealand celebrates over 50 years of its organization as a professional group, it is also important to acknowledge that this field of work is exciting, critical and responsive to a changing context because its practitioners collaborate across disciplines and interact with social scientists, policy advisors, unionists, politicians, political activists and community groups who are not located in academia.

The origins of sociology at University of Canterbury - contingency in context

Alan Crowther, Professor of Psychology, indicated informally at an afternoon tea early in 1957 that someone "might like to start teaching sociology". Richard Thompson, who had been teaching psychology at Canterbury since 1947, said he would "give it a go" (Thompson, 1996: 329). …

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