Young at Heart
Pam Nilan contributes a unique sociologist's viewpoint to the body of research on youth cultures in the Asia-Pacific region.
As a youth sociologist, Professor Pam Nilan has devoted much of her academic career to studying young people and still finds them "infinitely interesting".
"Someone once suggested to me that at my age I should start studying older people - but it is youth and youth culture that excites me," Nilan says.
"I have always been intrigued by the transition from childhood to adulthood - that age where people are still childlike in their openness to new ideas but at the same time socially active and engaging with the world. It is a really interesting cusp that enables them to look backwards and forwards at the same time. I never tire of studying it."
Youth, gender, formation of identity and popular culture are strong themes in the substantial research portfolio Nilan has amassed, which includes co-authorship of three books on Australian and global youth culture. Her love of Southeast Asia and the cultures of the Asia-Pacific region is also reflected in her work, which has taken her to Indonesia, Vietnam and Fiji to undertake significant sociological studies.
She recently completed a major two-year project funded by AusAID called Masculinities and Violence in Indonesia and India, which followed on from her previous Indonesia-based studies on adolescent culture and masculinities of young men. Nilan was a chief investigator on the Indonesian component of the study and project leader of the international team of researchers.
"Indonesia and India have histories of civil violence but most of the past research has been around aspects like religiously motivated violence, mass insurgencies or domestic violence - the role of masculinity and its constructions had not been considered," Nilan explains.
"We looked at the question of why some men stand back and watch violence and others get involved. To understand that you need to see violence as a form of cultural repertoire, something that can, in certain situations, win respect and bring rewards."
While unemployment and poverty were acknowledged as contributing factors to violence, the research led to some interesting observations on links between low socio-economic status and violence.
"What I have found, both from our data and wider studies, is that there isn't a direct correlation," Nilan says. "In areas where everybody is poor, you don't have a high incidence of violence. Where you do see more frequent violence is where there are discrepancies in the socio-economic status of people in the same community - so it is more about inequality of status than poverty per se."
Late last year Nilan undertook a lecture tour through Indonesia with colleague Dr Argyo Demartoto, of Central Java's University Sebelas Maret, to present their findings to a wide audience of academics, students, government officials and representatives of aid and development organisations.
Having studied and written on Indonesia since 1995, Nilan's insight into the country is frequently sought by the media and policy makers and she has worked as a consultant to the Australian government and AusAID. Her work brings a unique specialty to FEDUA's Humanities Research Institute - where she is part of the interdisciplinary Centre for the History of Violence - and has fostered academic exchange between students and researchers from Newcastle and Indonesia.
"Indonesia is a vast, diverse and really fascinating country but it is a country the average Australian still doesn't know a lot about," says Nilan, who is planning new research on the dawning of environmental consciousness among young people in the developing country.
"I think it is important for Australia's role in the region to have people like me who continue to research there and feed knowledge back to the academic community."