Last year Professor Andrew Hopkins‘ contribution to occupational health and safety (OHS) was celebrated in Australia. At the event, a publisher was promoting Hopkins’ upcoming autobiography. The book is not an autobiography, it is better.
The book is called “Quiet Outrage – The Way of a Sociologist” and was released in March 2016. Don’t be surprised if you have not heard of this new release. The publisher, Wolters Kluwer, seems to have done next to nothing to promote this book even though Hopkins’ works have been a major seller for the company. Hopkins writes that 90,000 copies of his books have been sold around the world – an extraordinary achievement for an Australian sociologist.
The book is slight at just over 100 pages and the language is clearer and cleaner than many of his other books, even though his bestsellers were very readable. (Stay away from some of the books by some safety professionals as their writing style can be politely described as turgid) In fact Hopkins prides himself on clarity of communication and devotes a chapter to its importance. He is critical of sociological theories and concepts that may have a sound base but are described in such a way that the reader does not clearly understand the concept. He does not say this but such disregard for the reader creates a disciplinary confusion by sounding clever and saying nothing.
Some authors produce writing and others provide reading. Hopkins writes for the reader, not for his ego or professional tenure.
There are some chapters in this book, and I am only half way through, that speak so clearly with concepts directly related to my own work and my approach to safety that I had to complete the chapter before doing anything else. The chapter on the “Seven Theses on Culture” is a standout and lances the pomposity of some of the safety culture spruikers. Below are several of the theses Hopkins discusses (Get the book to get them all).
“Culture is a characteristic of a group, not an individual, and talk of culture must always specify the relevant group.” (page 84)
Hopkins’ discussion on what this means for describing culture as based on a collection of individual attitudes changes how organisational culture’s OHS context must be described and discussed. Hopkins says that by focusing on the individual
“what the company is seeking to do, without realising it, is to change the culture of groups outside the workplace. It is most unlikely to be able to do this.” (page 84)
On the issue of leadership, Hopkins uses a topical example of railways and on-time running to explain another thesis:
“Organisational cultures depend on the structures that organisations put in place to achieve important outcomes. These structures reflect the priorities of top leaders. The priorities of leaders in turn may depend on factors outside the organisation, such as regulatory pressure and public opinion.” (page 88)
This supports my contention that to truly change OHS, one must understand the broad sociopolitical context and, probably, some of the business economics. Trying to change OHS in isolation will only be successful in the short-term and almost all companies are looking for sustainability and success.
This book may be best described as a professional biography. It outlines some of his successes and at least one of his failures. It allows Hopkins to express himself and discuss topics without a specific market or in relation to a specific topic other than his own professional, and personal, education. I have driven back to his hotel one night long ago, have interviewed him many times and listened to him at many conferences and seminars but I never knew he was married or that he had children. I only know now because they are thanked in his Acknowledgements. But I never needed to know. His marital status was irrelevant to the ideas that I came to hear him speak.
I am yet to delve into the chapters of his early academic life and his familiarity with Marxism – a familiarity that any sociology student must experience as Marxism is a crucial sociological approach that waxes and wanes with fashion and, sometimes, age.
At last year’s celebration of his works I heard for the first time about his 1991 book on domestic violence (“Working for Change: The Movement Against Domestic Violence“) and his work as a journalist, both of which are discussed in this book.
“Quiet Outrage” provides a glimpse of the man behind the books who is passionate about sociology and making a difference – a difference that will, if it hasn’t already, saved lives. The book is essential for OHS professionals and business leaders but just as important for sociologists who have not always been supportive of the pathways that Hopkins has chosen.
It’s worth finishing this article with a paragraph from his concluding chapter:
“Industry has much to learn from sociology when it comes to understanding the causes of accidents. The search for causes can easily get stuck at the level of immediate causation – the technical factors leading to the accident, and the contribution of front-line personnel – their carelessness, complacency, incompetence or apathy. But if accidents are to be prevented, those in control must look to the more remote causes, and this is where the discipline of sociology comes in – identifying the organisational levers of change that can be used to make work safer. (page 115)