Research Highlights

Social Science led innovation

Professor John Germov brings a sociologist’s eye to some of society’s most complex problems

“There’s never been a more important time for social science research,” John says. In a rapidly accelerating era of global change, the role of social scientists in evaluating and understanding human behaviour is an essential ingredient to boosting innovation and prosperity.

“Given all the ‘wicked problems’ that confront the world, you need to have a multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary approach to solving these issues.” There’s currently an intense focus on the promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), but John believes that broadening the acronym to STEAM to include the liberal arts will allow for true innovation.

“The STEM approach assumes that scientific innovations develop in a social vacuum, but in fact, how they’re designed, what problems they’re trying to address and how useful and impactful they are, are all the products of their social context and social determinants,” John asserts.

John explains that if companies aren’t factoring in these issues at the beginning, middle and end of the development process then they’re almost dooming themselves to failure. “It’s likely they’ll have little take-up, ineffective solutions or there will be solutions that have never been developed because they haven’t understood the nature of the problem,” John says.

“Social research can bring solutions to the table – identifying why a product is needed, where it’s needed and its preferred functionality.”

A Weighty issue

When it comes to health research, John believes that social scientists can be the perfect complementary partner to help ensure that research is developed into practice. “Billions of dollars have been spent on medical research into obesity and yet, despite all those billions of dollars we still have a growing weight problem in the western world,” John explains.

“We need to understand the social factors that are impacting on weight gain,” John says. “For example, it could be working unsocial hours, living in an unsafe neighbourhood, poor community infrastructure, and ineffective public policies that underpin problematic food habits and low levels of physical activity. Once we understand the barriers, we can use that insight to work out how to overcome the obstacles.”

As a sociologist, John is fascinated by what influences healthy or unhealthy lifestyles. “Personal preference of course plays a part in all these matters. Yet, there are distinct social patterns in how and what we eat.”

“For example, personal preference can’t explain ‘national’ cuisines. Think of India and curry, Japan and sushi. There are always larger forces at work – social, cultural, political, economic and historical.”

Investigating these forces – what John refers to collectively as the ‘social appetite’ – has resulted in his large body of research on the sociology of food and nutrition. Over his career, John has examined the social determinants of food consumption and production, including the influence of gender and class on eating habits; the relationships between food, identity and body image; the public health impact of fast food, the rise of the ‘slow food’ movement, changing patterns of alcohol consumption; and how the Australian diet has changed.

Much of this work is reflected in an international book for which he and his research colleague Professor Lauren Williams are widely known – A Sociology of Food and Nutrition: The Social Appetite. “Broadly you could say this work contradicts the old adage ‘You are what you eat’. I’ve found the inverse to be true: what you eat is strongly influenced by the conditions in which you live and work.”

After indulging his sociological passion for food for many years, John found himself developing an intellectual predilection for wine – a logical progression, he claims. “I joke with my colleagues that since I was already studying food, it was natural to match this with a study of wine. And we are in the Hunter Valley after all.”

Surprisingly little research has been done on the wine sector in Australia, and particularly the Hunter. Nevertheless John is intent on changing this, through his leadership of the Wine Studies Research Network. This interdisciplinary cluster of scholars from the humanities and social sciences is unearthing the history of the region’s wine industry – the oldest in Australia – and unravelling the complex interactions between production, consumption, and the evolution of ‘taste’. John himself has been collaborating extensively with historian Dr Julie McIntyre on Australia’s rise as a nation of wine producers and wine drinkers.

As a passionate educator, John believes in the importance of contributing to public debate and helping to shape the higher education policy agenda.

John’s focus on raising the impact of social sciences is echoed by some of the world’s most innovative businesses. “Companies such as Apple and Google employ social researchers and social scientists to enhance the quality of their overall operations,” John explains.

“Social science offers insights to improve people’s living and working conditions by more effectively capturing not only the problems that need to be addressed, but how they can best be resolved.”