Suburban life under the academic microscope


Social Change, Suburban Lives
By Lois Bryson and Ian Winter
Allen and Unwin, 1999. $29.95

Review by Maree Roberts

Do sociologists have important things to say about social change? In their "update" of An Australian Newtown (1972), Bryson and Winter return to the same Melbourne suburb to see "how much life has changed between the 1960s and the 1990s, and how much it has stayed the same".

The suburb dubbed "Newtown" was built by the Housing Commission on rural land on the fringe of Melbourne. In the 1960s, the suburb was home to mainly low-income blue collar families dependent on manufacturing industry. They had secure housing and were optimistic about life.

Today, Bryson and Winter document, Newtown's families are "doing it hard". The single most important factor in this change is unemployment. The "negative effects of global restructuring" have meant unemployment of up to 20% and fear for the future. The car industry, employing 7000 in the 1960s, now employs 1000 people.

Loss of economic power has meant a loss of political power, illustrated by the community being unable to resist the imposition of "super-councils" by the state government and the loss of key battles over development and planning in the area. The interests of working-class people have taken "something of a battering" in Newtown, the authors note.

This study details, descriptively and statistically, the many effects the change in the economy has had on people's lives, and how their choices are shaped by the economic and social context in which they live.

Anyone who doubts that economic restructuring and its ideological soul mate, economic rationalism, have had a destructive effect on the lives of working people need look no further than this book.

Social Change, Suburban Lives also chronicles the many forms of resistance and resilience which continue to exist in working-class communities.

Is the book useful? Academics seem to have made an industry out of chronicling growing inequality in Western capitalist societies. While this book is a work of high standard and rigour, by itself it is hard to imagine it can open the eyes of those who have orchestrated economic restructuring. With Clinton-style "workfare" reforms and extensions of work for the dole on the agenda, the business class and its Lib/Lab servants think we have still got some way to go.

Marx concluded that capitalism was ultimately destructive of human relationships. Much more is needed than simply documenting inequality. The creation of a just world for working people will occur when they take collective action through mass social movements. Once you have read the books, take the next step.