The social sciences are practised in all of Australia’s forty universities. Much of the teaching and research is concerned with the country’s distinctive characteristics: a thinly populated island continent; a European settler society with a strong Indigenous presence, a high rate of immigration and ethnic diversity; an advanced democracy with federal system of government; a prosperous trading economy based on commodity exports. Australian social science is therefore strong in fields such as environmental studies, demography, Aboriginal studies, multiculturalism, gender studies, history, politics and economics. It also has strengths in disciplines such as philosophy and international studies, especially East Asian and Southeast Asian studies.

The social sciences developed in disciplinary departments organised in separate faculties. Thus departments of anthropology, geography, history, linguistics, philosophy, politics and sociology were located in faculties of Arts, while economics, education and law formed separate faculties and psychology was in some places located in faculties of science or even medicine. This arrangement has given way to new organisational structures. The multidisciplinary school has become common, and divisions have replaced faculties. Academic disciplines have generated applied fields of study, and professional and vocational courses have expanded. Hence business studies now attract larger enrolments than economics, while schools of public policy operate alongside departments of politics. The same tendency is apparent in research, with the formation of multidisciplinary institutes and centres.

social science students in  sydneyThe bachelor’s degree requires three years of study, with a fourth year for honours. Students are required to complete a major, which is made up of a sequence of semester-length units in a discipline, but allows substantial choice of units from other disciplines. A wide range of more specialised graduate courses is offered, usually consisting of two years of study; many of these are vocational in character and cater to both the domestic and international market.

The Australian Research Council is the principal public source of support for research and offers a range of grants for centres, projects and fellowships. These include grants with industry partners, and are complemented by commissioned research. Higher degree research is supported by a large number of scholarships to domestic students, to whom it is free of charge. The number of international higher degree research students lags behind those undertaking undergraduate degrees, but is increasing. A number of government research programs assist international collaboration, which is a marked feature of current work in the social sciences. All the Australian universities conduct both teaching and research, so that both the curriculum and pedagogy are enriched by the research activity.

There is also increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research both within the social sciences and in partnership with the natural and biological sciences. Hence the social sciences are drawn into the programs of public research organisations such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation, and play a prominent role in environmental studies, public health and industrial innovation. These patterns of activity have in turn employment outcomes. Many graduates in social science proceed to professional careers in the private and public sector; an increasing number work in the growth sector of the knowledge economy.

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia