Once upon a time in Caversham, Greg Newbold

Class and Occupation: The New Zealand Reality
Erik Olssen and Maureen Hickey
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 187737203X

Class and Occupation is based on almost three decades of intermittent but intensive research, begun in the 1970s, on the Dunedin suburb of Caversham. Funded from 1995 by a huge grant from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the then foundering project was revived, the money allowing the enterprise finally to be concluded. Most of the actual writing occurred between 1996 and 1999. It consists of 150 pages of text, followed by a 100-page appendix.

The book is written as a series of six stand-alone chapter-essays, on a variety of quite disparate topics. The cover blurb describes it as “the first systematic attempt to identify New Zealand’s actual occupational structure from 1893 to 1938”, which it eventually does, albeit in a very roundabout way. During its long history, the project had a number of participants and directors, and this may explain why the chapters appear somewhat fragmented. The primary problem I had while reading it was to identify a common thread and to work out the relevance of the some of the extremely detailed and often turgid discussion.

The above difficulty was compounded by the fact that the work lacks an introduction that might tie it to some rationale, or outline its purpose to a reader. There is a short half-paged preface, but this contains only points of clarification and a few acknowledgements. The first chapter begins with the words, “This book deals with two related questions central to the historical sociology of New Zealand: how best to construct an occupational structure (a) for New Zealand and (b) for a particular locality or region in New Zealand.” That somewhat broad research statement is the only early indication we get of what the book is about. The first chapter then embarks straightaway on a general discussion of the treatment of occupation within New Zealand Census, followed by a history of the Caversham project and the Caversham area itself. Scattered liberally throughout the chapter is lengthy debate over the problems involved in census classification. This soon becomes a dominating theme of the book and drives it from beginning to end.

Chapter two is a history of the occupational census, consisting of 25 pages of discussion about the practical difficulties of classifying occupations. It is followed by another chapter, this one 33 pages long, which does pretty much the same thing. We are now more than halfway through the book and we still don’t know anything about the country’s occupational structure in the time-frame identified. This information comes in chapter four, which is a detailed and highly descriptive treatment of New Zealand’s changing occupational structure in the years 1901, 1926 and 1936, along with another five pages of discussion about the problems of census classification. On page 95 some useful analysis commences, and it is interesting to observe how the effects of the Great Depression impacted on New Zealand’s employment profile, as displayed in the 1936 figures.

It is not until the penultimate chapter that we finally arrive at the study area itself, which is the occupational structure of the old Dunedin boroughs of Caversham, South Dunedin and St Kilda between 1874 and 1936. Here a comparison is made between the national figures of the previous chapter and the Caversham study itself, together with comment on the nature of small-town occupational structure generally. However, before we proceed further, we are subjected to yet another discussion, this one 10 pages long, of the problems that emerge in using electoral rolls for the purposes of identifying a community’s occupational structure. This done, the chapter ends with a brief but interesting comparison of national versus local structure, and the profile of class and sources of prestige in old New Zealand. The book closes with a short review of the nature of occupational change during the study period. As noted, there is a voluminous appendix which lists the occupational categories that were used in the censuses of 1901, 1926 and 1936. There is also a useful index.

Class and Occupation is a lengthy analysis of the history of occupations in New Zealand and of the censuses that have tried to quantify them. The purpose of focusing on the Caversham area was to identify work mobility, geographical movement and residential differentiation in South Dunedin, and to find out how typical this area was in comparison with the national structure. In order to overcome the numerous problems surrounding census classifications, and the fact that for many years census enumeration returns were systematically destroyed, Olssen and his colleagues have created a new classification system that allowed them to achieve their purpose. The result is a book which is extremely detailed, well–referenced and authoritative, but which, by reading something like a lengthy ministerial briefing paper, makes very hard going for the consumer. It will be of value to those with specialist involvement with population demographics and census data, but is unlikely to appeal to the general reader.


Greg Newbold is an associate professor in the School of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Canterbury.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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