"De-Skilling" the 1891 Censuses in New South Wales and Tasmania

By Maddison, Ben | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2007 | Go to article overview

"De-Skilling" the 1891 Censuses in New South Wales and Tasmania


Maddison, Ben, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


I

In the 1891 censuses taken in New South Wales and Tasmania the colonies' fifty-year practice of using skill-based categories to classify workers was abandoned, and working-class occupations were classified regardless of their skill content. Occupations which since 1841 had been grouped into the categories "Skilled" and "Unskilled" were now subsumed in the single category, "Industrial workers". (1) Looking inside that category as it was used in the 1891 New South Wales census we can see that it included both "skilled" and "unskilled" occupations. Whilst "labourers" were a majority in the category there were also an array of other occupations which could claim a degree of skill--"engineers, engine-drivers and stokers", "machinists and machine-hands", "factory workers", and "mechanics". (2)

This new way of grouping together occupations that had hitherto been classified separately according to skill, describes the "deskilling" effected in the 1891 censuses. It was a sudden departure, not only from preceding classificatory practice, but also from a trajectory which in some respects appeared to make the categories of skill better attuned to a modernising society. In the preceding two New South Wales censuses the range of the category "skilled" had been gradually widened. The exclusively masculine application of the category was abandoned in the 1871 and 1881 censuses when for the first time female occupations (in the needle-trades) were described and classified as "skilled". (3)

Although this disjunction in occupational classification has not previously been the subject of historical investigation, two possible explanations for it are latent within the existing historiography. The first is that the eradication of categories of skill--at precisely the point where their use was becoming applied to female labour--was part of the mechanism by which a rising middle class--of which the New South Wales statistician, T.A. Coghlan was a prominent member reshaped the classification of work in the 1890s to reinforce the gendered character of the social division of labour. A principal mechanism was to de-emphasise the value and significance of women's paid non-domestic labour in sites such as censuses, and in so doing emphasise that the realm of domesticity and dependence on the male wage was appropriately women's. (4) The effect of this explanation is to characterise figures such as Coghlan as antediluvian and retrogessive--almost as existing against the flow of progressive historical change. The second form of explanation lying latent within the literature is that the deskilling of the 1891 censuses in New South Wales and Tasmania simply reflected the deskilled nature of work in those colonies. (5)

There are problems with both these forms of explanation. While it may be possible to see some work in late-nineteenth-century New South Wales as deskilled and industrial labour, it is hard indeed to characterise work in Tasmania in the 1880s and 1890s in the same way. (6) Thus, the changes to occupational classification effected in the 1891 censuses cannot be explained adequately as a direct response to changes in the character of work. Indeed, as much contemporary analysis has shown, a gap between work and how it is portrayed and described--its representations--always exists, often performing important legitimating functions for a particular mode of organising work and society. (7) The presence of such a gap between work and its representations demands that attention be given to the conceptual resources from which particular representations of work are constructed.

Recent approaches to statistical works such as censuses have argued that they should be considered as sites in which representations of work and workers are unfolded and disseminated. (8) As such, occupational classifications are places where ideologies are displayed, and particular gender, racial and class dimensions of social orders constructed and reinforced. …

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