ARCSHS Oration: Social problems and facts in a sceptical world

  A recent public event introduced the DruGS Program’s Suzanne Fraser as the new Director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS). Professor Fraser opened the event with a lecture, and this was followed by a panel discussion with four distinguished Australian social scientists, Associate Professor Helen Keane (ANU), Emeritus Professor Gary Dowsett (La Trobe), UNSW Scientia Professor Carla Treloar, and Professor Kane Race (University of Sydney).

Constituting social ‘problems’: The role of social research in defining and addressing social issues in a sceptical world

Recent decades have seen critical developments in research that question scientific objectivity and posit more than one ‘reality’, with philosophers and scholars of research method asking us to consider how and why knowledges (including ‘facts’) are made. At the same time, climate change scepticism, ‘antivaxxers’, Trumpism and related phenomena have also adopted a critical relationship to facts, if for very different ends. For some researchers, this openness is necessary and generative. Others simply want their ‘facts back’. Questions of knowledge, truth and fact loom large in the fields of research in which ARCSHS works because ours are highly contested spaces too: LGBTIQ lives and rights; blood-borne viral presents and futures; consuming, pleasure-seeking bodies in the context of sex, drugs and risk. In such areas, what we know, how we know it, and why, remain contested and volatile.

Drawing on contemporary thinking about the nature of research this event explored three key questions emerging from these developments:

1. How should researchers navigate issues of truth, fact and reality in a context in which the need for stable ground seems stronger than ever?
2. How should researchers view their role in society, given that the work they do constitutes as well as solves problems?
3. Given the role of research in constituting problems, how do we decide which social problems to constitute in the pursuit of better worlds, and how we can best frame and address social issues?
The event was held on Thursday 7 November 2019 at Rydges Melbourne.