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Australian farm families' experience of the drought in the 1990s: a sociological perspective

Lawrence, G. Professor; Ph. (07) 4930 9053; Fax (07) 4930 6756;

Research organisation: Rural Social and Economic Research Centre, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Qld

Collaborators: Dr Daniela Stehlik, Rural Social and Economic Research Centre, Central Queensland University; Dr Ian Gray, Faculty of Arts, Charles Sturt University

Sponsors: RIRDC, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation; LWRRDC, Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation.


1. To begin to understand the way in which drought is socially constructed and how such constructions influence on-farm drought strategies; and

2. To identify and analyse when and in what ways resource management strategies used by farm families were altered during the recently experienced drought.


This consisted of three components - interviews (structured and semi-structured) with 30 families in Central Queensland and 30 families in the Riverina, and with rural counsellors and drought officers; focus group discussions (four groups of approximately eight members) in both regions; and case studies (in-depth longitudinal appraisal of four farms within each region).


The Project was completed in December 1997. Among the findings of the study were: droughts brought about substantial economic and social hardship, in which families were the first 'line of defence'. Women, in particular, were expected to carry an additional burden during these times. While many producers were striving for self-reliance and were able to manage risk, the extent and duration of drought left them unable to fend without external support. It was found that community support was not always forthcoming and that drought policy had unintended consequences (such as threats to family cohesion). At times the agronomists and other 'experts' caused additional stress by failing to understand the ways social relations/management options had been altered in times of drought. Producers expressed cynicism about the reporting of drought by the media and did not welcome the view that they were 'helpless victims'. The social dislocation needs to be better understood by government if more integrated approaches to service delivery are to meet the needs of families during drought times.

Period: starting date January 1996-01; completion date 1997-12

Status: completed

Keywords: drought, farming, Australia, sociology, social construction, survey


Bulis, H., Stehlik, D., Gray, I. and Lawrence, G. (1996). The Shifting Sands of Disadvantage - a Social Policy Analysis of Drought, in R. Heathcote, C. Cutler and J. Koetz (eds) Proceedings of the NDR 96 Conference, Institution of Engineers.

Gray, I., Stehlik, D., Lawrence, G. and Bulis, H. (in press). Community, Communion and Drought in Rural Australia, Journal of the Community Development Society, 29.

Lawrence, G., Stehlik, D., Gray, I. and Bulis, H. (1997). Framing the Drought: A Sociological Approach, in W. Mules and H. Miller, eds., Mapping Regional Cultures, Rural Social and Economic Research Centre, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton.

Lawrence, G., Gray, I., Stehlik, D. and Bulis, H. (1998). Agricultural Restructuring Under Conditions of Drought in Central Queensland. In D. Burch, G. Lawrence, R. Rickson and J. Goss (eds.) Australasian Food and Farming in a Globalised Economy: Recent Developments and Future Prospects, Monash Publications in Geography Number 50, Monash University, Melbourne.

Stehlik, D., Witcomb, A., Lawrence, G. and Gray, I. (1996). Towards a Social Construction of Drought: a Preliminary Analysis, in G. Lawrence, K. Lyons, and S. Momtaz, S. (eds.) Social Change in Rural Australia: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, Rural Social and Economic Research Centre, Central Queensland University.

Stehlik, D., Gray, I. and Lawrence, G. (1997). Farm Families in Times of Crisis: Drought, Health and Family Decision Making, Proceedings of the National Rural Public Health Forum, National Rural Health Alliance.

Stehlik, D. Bulis, H., Lawrence, G. and Gray, I. (1997). Rural Families and the Impact of Drought in the 1990s, Proceedings of the Fifth Australian Family Research Conference, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Stehlik, D., Gray, I. and Lawrence, G. (in press). Australian Farm Families' Experience of Drought, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra 121 pp.


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