This thesis is essentially an inquiry into the bases of social inequality and the forms that unequal social relations take in contemporary Australian society. It addresses these issues from a somewhat different perspective from conventional sociological inquiry and is concerned with devising a more comprehensive conceptual and empirical framework for investigating social inequality. This inquiry is about relations of access; that is, forms of attachment to means of consumption in various spheres of economic activity - the social relations that are formed for the purpose of obtaining goods and services for survival and well-being.
The thesis rests upon the argument that conventional sociological analyses of inequality that have been focused upon the class bases (however defined) of inequality, whilst rightly drawing attention to the structures that produce and perpetuate unequal access to and control over income from the market (either wages or profits), have left us unable to provide adequate accounts of the economic status of whole categories of people whose social positions are primarily experienced and largely constructed outside the dominant sphere of production in capitalist economies - those not in the labour force or unemployed.
An 'access relations' approach to inquiry is proposed. This takes as its starting point the acknowledgement that firstly, inequalities in access to essential and valued resources arise in a variety of different social settings, are constituted in and through different (and many) social divisions, and are sustained by a range of ideologies and discursive practices; and secondly, the structural and cultural forces that shape these different social settings operate not simply at the societal or broader cultural levels but are enacted at the level of lived experience, in households and residential contexts. The central question in this inquiry is, 'What forms of household and residential organisation become central (hegemonic) in and across different social settings, and what exclusionary practices lead to other forms being marginalised so that some categories of people come to have very limited access to or control over basic resources for survival and well-being?'
The context of this inquiry is the Brisbane/lpswich/Moreton region of south-east Queensland in the 1990s. The sources of empirical evidence are, first, a secondary analysis of household survey data collected from some 372 households in the Brisbane metropolitan area in the early 1990s; and second, a follow-up study involving 28 in-depth interviews with clients of emergency relief centres in the Ipswich/Moreton district that provides a more detailed source of evidence of the conditions of consumption in highly vulnerable households.
Analysis of these data highlights the significance and inter-relatedness of labour market participation, gender divisions of labour, owner occupation of housing, patterns of family/household formation and change over the lifecourse, and maintenance of interhousehold networks as key processes that shape access to resources and, ultimately, produce enduring patterns of social inequality. Choice and control in access arrangements across all spheres of access emerge as fundamental characteristics of security. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is seen to be connected to survival strategies patterned around forms of dependency that may be inconsistent with, even contradictory to, dominant forms of provisioning. Ultimately, the analysis focuses attention upon: (i) the significance of kinship in the 'total economy' and of 'the family' as a site of exclusion; (ii) the fundamental importance of housing provision for survival; (iii) the increasingly central part that organisations of the Third Sector play in shaping access arrangements and strategies of survival at the periphery; and (iv) the significance of emergent identities of survival, for the inclusion/exclusion of vulnerable households at the periphery. By applying a range of strategies for inquiry, the analysis reveals the manner in which formations of class, gender and age relations operate upon, within and across a range of contexts in which people (including those whose main sources of income are neither wages nor profits from the market) actively work to obtain goods and services for survival and well-being.