Australian Values

Here is a proposal for a large scale investigation which I don’t have the time to do.

Would it be possible to work out the moral dimensions of our culture through a study of the words we use to convey a sense of ‘good’?

By ‘moral dimensions’ I mean the shared values, ethical imperatives or prohibitions, aspirations, etc, which are generalisable through our society, i.e., shared by nearly everyone. I’m open to the possibility that no such values exist.

It certainly seems the case that references to ‘Australian Values’ never seem far away from the lips of politicians or the headlines of the Media. For this reason, many people have rightly raised and debated the question, what are ‘Australian Values’?

While, I think it’s a questionable assumption that there would be such a thing as values which are uniquely Australian, what would be the methodology for engaging in a descriptive rather than a prescriptive study of morality.
Put simply, how would you work out what people actually think ‘good’ is, rather than simply saying what people should think ‘good’ is.

Could you study the range of words used in our public discourse as a reflection of public values?
For example, there is a sense of ‘goodness’ within words such as ‘useful’, ‘beautiful’, ‘positive’, ‘nice’, ‘elegant’.

If we were to go through an edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and pull out words that are used to describe something favourably, would this tell us something about our values?
Is there something particularly significant about words that are being employed in unusal ways, such as, ‘cool’, ‘wicked’, ‘sick’, ‘mad’?

Maybe I’ll start reading a section of the SMH, I’ll let you know what I find…


4 thoughts on “Australian Values

  1. That's a great idea. I'd love to have a go at it myself, if I ever had time. Would be a great thing to do before I leave the university and no longer have access to Factiva archives. Though I suspect that using google to do a site-restricted search would still be sufficient.


  2. I don't think I know about Factiva – what does it do?
    The biggest challenge to the project that I can see is the need to have a predefined list of terms that mean 'good'. It would be open to obvious bias in selection.
    And it would be a huge amount of work considering the range of novel ways we can employ language.


  3. Factiva is a comprehensive newspaper archive produced by Dow Jones. They keep records of Reuters, AP and Dow Jones news wires and the papers in which they are published. You can use it to search all the articles in Australian newspapers for, say, the last two years (or however far you want to go back). It includes everything, rather than the articles that newspaper's online editor deems worthy of publishing for free online.

    It certainly would be a huge amount of work, but I don't think that you would necessarily need a predefined list of terms that mean 'good.' You could either a) start with a small list, look through a set of newspapers to find synonyms used in the text, then search for those, and so on recursively, or b) restrict your analysis to one or two newspapers, then read through each in excruciating detail, highlighting anything that appears to be a positive word; then build a definitive list on what 'emerges' from the text.

    Method b) would more in line with popular qualitative research methods (though I am no expert), because (ostensibly) it imposes less of the researcher's own values onto the text.

    Either way it would be a lot of work, but my opinion is that all research is like that. You do a truck-load of painstaking, time-consuming work to find really strong evidence that shows what everyone knows intuitively anyway.

    Given your starting inspiration of 'Australian Values' rhetoric however, I think it certainly would be an interesting exercise. If I were an academic in an arts faculty, I would be tempted to 'encourage' an honours student to pick it up.

    Anyhow, discussion of qualitative research methods is probably way outside the range of your very interesting, thought-provoking post.



  4. wow, that sounds like a methodology for this research. Now all we need is a poor honours student.
    I would suggest a combination of a) and b). Starting with b) to create an initial list then searching for these and synonyms in other papers and continually broadening the survey. That would certainly be a lot of work but it would be almost certainly definitive.
    The broader question still remains, how much of our values are betrayed in our language, we'd also need a study comparing what we say with how we act.
    The language survey would be an interesting contribution to a larger work.
    I had this idea the other day that we need to start a private University.


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