Addressing Disadvantage: Applying Theory to Practice. Melbourne, Australia

Addressing DisadvantageDina Bowman talks about her work with a not-for-profit organisation in Melbourne, Australia, which addresses social disadvantage through services, advocacy and research. Dina’s current research focus is on understanding inequality in the ‘working years’. She outlines how it is possible to use social theory in an applied context in order to address inequality and to inform effective policy and practice.

Dr Dina Bowman

Research and Policy Manager, Brotherhood of St Laurence, and fellow (honorary) in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

Sociologist at Work

I joined the Research and Policy Centre (RPC) at the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL) in May 2009. The BSL is a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to address disadvantage through research, service delivery and advocacy. The head office is based in inner city Melbourne. The Brotherhood’s services focus on areas such as Frankston, Fitzroy and Craigieburn in Victoria, but we also are involved in programs with a national focus.

The RPC has about 30 staff and is organised around life course transitions: the early years; the transition from school to work; transitions in and out of work; and retirement and aging. In addition, there are cross cutting issues such as equity in climate change, financial inclusion and Indigenous issues. We work at local, national and international levels.

I am the Research and Policy Manager for the in and out of work transition. My work entails overseeing research and evaluation projects, conducting empirical research, participating in advisory groups, disseminating research findings and providing strategic policy analysis and advice. The BSL has strong relationships with universities and we often supervise students on placement. I’m currently associate supervisor of a student who is undertaking research about the persistence of the gender pay gap. Since joining the BSL, I have been keen to highlight issues around care and gender as they relate to employment and disadvantage. Last year I convened a symposium on care, social inclusion and social citizenship (scroll down for links to papers). The keynote speaker was Professor Ruth Lister who also presented the Sambell Oration for the BSL. The program is available here.

My current projects include work on mature age workforce participation, care and social inclusion and I am also partner investigator on two ARC Linkage projects and developing a third on mature age workforce participation. Current Linkage projects are:

  • Employment retention and advancement of disadvantaged jobseekers (a longitudinal study with Melbourne Institute)
  • Balancing trust and control in the provision of employment services: comparing outcomes for disability employment service users with Ann Nevile and others at the Australian National University (ANU).

Applied sociologists like theory too!

When I joined the BSL I established a reading theory group with my colleague Sonia Martin because we recognised that an understanding of theoretical frameworks is vital – especially in a multidisciplinary setting. The group has met regularly over the past eighteen months or so and we have discussed a wide range of theory. Our latest readings relate to political ideologies (thanks to Sharon Bond for these readings!):

Some papers – theoretical and applied

Here are links to recent reports which show the range of work that I am involved in:

  • Sen and Bourdieu: Understanding inequality: In this paper I examine different approaches to understanding inequality. I compare Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, which has become very popular in Australia, with Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas, which, while increasingly popular in sociology, have not been widely used in social policy in Australia. I argue that while a capabilities approach is useful in evaluating inequality, Bourdieu’s concepts of field, forms of capital and habitus—especially as they have been developed by feminists—enable a deeper understanding of the processes and experience of inequality.
  • Evidence and experience: This report highlights issues around the adaptation and implementation of evidence based interventions for highly disadvantaged jobseekers with mental health issues.
  • Training for work: This report examines the experience of trainees and students at the BSL. A key finding of this research is the need for support before, during and after training. Our analysis suggests that where individuals had strong social networks and resources, training and formal credentials assisted them to secure employment. However, for many other students training is only part of the solution. Without support and mentoring, a certificate or qualification is not sufficient to enable them to get and keep a job.
  • ‘The Australian experience of employment services: what have we learnt?’ in Now it’s personal: Learning from welfare-to-work approaches around the world discusses the experience of Australian employment services and argues that the current system works against innovation and individualised service provision because of the constraints of funding compliance.


Forthcoming reports focus on mature age workforce participation and the job pathways of low-paid and disadvantaged workers.

I maintain involvement with academic colleagues through The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) particularly through the Applied Sociology thematic group and the Sociology of Economic Life thematic group of which I was a convenor from 200710. I’m co-editor of the newsletter Exchange and maintain the website I am also an honorary fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

I think I am pretty lucky to work in an environment that enables engagement with applied and academic research and is working for ‘an Australia free of poverty’. The BSL also has a great library that is accessible to researchers interested in poverty and disadvantage.

Editorial Credits

SAW logoArticle copyright: © Dina Bowman 2011. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Working Notes ISSN: 1838-5214

Article citation: Bowman, D. (2011) ‘Addressing Disadvantage: Applying Theory to Practice,’ Working Notes, Issue 2, June, online resource:

Top image credit: JanahPhotography (2010) ‘Unemployed and Homeless’, Flickr. Online resource last accessed 3 June 2011:

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