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4. Settlers' attitudes

D.N. Parkes

This chapter presents the results of field studies in Alice Springs undertaken to gain a profile or image of how the residents of a remote arid zone settlement that is also experiencing rapid population growth and urbanization evaluate the setting into which they have settled.

Australia's continental mass approximates that of the United States but its population is less than 7 per cent of that country's. So one of the most significant ecological factors is remoteness or geographical detachment from the principal urban centres, and this may lead to a sense of isolation which in turn affects behaviour at many levels. When associated with travel costs (in excess of A$250.00 from Alice Springs to the nearest larger settlement, e.g., Darwin), then remoteness combined with a sense of isolation may also contribute to the demographic profile that has developed. The demographic structure is the determinant of most social, economic, and political features of any settlement. Migration is a crucial factor in the urbanization process because of the selective procedures that always operate; this feature is taken up in more detail in the next chapter by Burnley.

Settlers' attitudes and life-style therefore have part of their explanation in the predispositions and preconditions associated with migration, such as age, sex, and occupational and marital status, rather than entirely with the settlement context as such.

The purpose of the surveys undertaken in January and February of 1980 and 1981 was to obtain a profile of the attitudes of people to living in the remote centre of an arid zone of 5.7 million kmē and to try and identify a preliminary ordering of the items which were raised. The results are clearly relevant for Australia; whether they have more general significance for understanding urbanization and urbanism in other arid regions of the world is not clear. At this stage it seems probable that Australia's vast arid region, small population, and highly capitalized economy combine to present a condition unique in the world.

The Field Surveys in 1980 and 1981

It is difficult to compose the profile of any population in terms of how its members see themselves or how they see the relative importance of various everyday features of urban life, such as transportation, cost of living in general, availability of commercial and social facilities, and the sense of belonging to a "localised population which is interdependent on a daily basis" (Smelser 1967). While the Alice Springs resident population of over 17,500 people (1981 est.) is small by contemporary urban standards, it is important to note that it is not only a highly transient population but is technologically advanced in terms of previous experiences and present dependencies.

How residents selected by sampling designs express their feelings in a survey is at best only a second approximation to the actual views of the population. It is also rather difficult to compose a general but inquisitive survey which has no single objective such as the determination of attitudes to a political party or of attitudes to the cost of living, for instance. Such difficulties are compounded in a region for which there is little published research of this nature that can act as a control.

The two field surveys discussed here were independent of the studies on migration and services reported in later chapters. The first field survey carried out in late January and early February 1980 was designed to generate as many items as possible from a sample of residents of Alice Springs. Each dwelling in Alice Springs was allocated a number, and dwellings were then selected according to random numbers. In addition, a further 65 subjects from special interest groups were derived from a simple "snowball"-type sample. These subjects were drawn from contacts made with school teachers, members of the Tourist Association, the CSIRO, the Institute for Aboriginal Development, the FM radio group, and the Senior Citizens Club, and from personal contacts which members of each of these groups had with other residents in Alice Springs. The total sample cannot therefore be treated as statistically random and wholly representative of the entire population of Alice Springs. Of the 172 field schedules available for analysis from the 1980 study,115 were from the random sample group out of an initial total of 135, and 57 were from the special interest group out of an initial total of 65. This represents a high response rate of 85 per cent.

During the same summer period of 1981, the same field study was undertaken, this time only with a random sample. The 1981 sample was used as a basis for comparison with the 1980 study and then combined to form a single sample. In 1981 the initial response rate was 73 per cent and finally 66 per cent owing to incomplete schedules or other respondent errors. Following amalgamation and further screening of the data to eliminate schedules which were incomplete according to the criterion that any case with more than six missing entries was not to be used, the final sample size was 233 residents, ranging in age from 15 to 71.

A test of the difference between the three samples used a stepwise multiple discriminant analysis for response scores based on up to 20 items presented as statements in the survey. The samples were sufficiently similar to be treated as part of the same population, except in terms of two variables-length of residence and age. Both these variables had lower averages and displayed less variability for the special interest groups than for the two random groups, and this is perhaps what would be intuitively expected if we assume that new, young residents are likely to be actively involved in various community and self-interest enterprises. It will be noted from chapter 5, table 5.1 that the age of all immigrants was low, 46 per cent being in the age group 25-34. For the special interest group in the first survey the average age was 35, one standard deviation ranged between 26 and 44 years. The residential distribution of the sampled population in Alice Springs is illustrated in figure 4.1. The map represents the initially selected dwellings. The dots represent the 1981 sample, the squares the 1980 sample.

In table 4.1 some of the attributes of the sample group have been summarized, and a number of comments can be made. A shortcoming in the sample is the bias towards females. In the 1976 census the number of males exceed the number of females by 413. In age groups up to 15 years, the number of males exceeded the number of females by 183, but this group is not included in the study. For the age groups 17-29 the number of females exceeded the number of males by 120. Overall the bias towards females in the sample is probably less marked than is frequently the case when small household surveys are undertaken mainly during daylight hours in the working week. The most frequently occurring sample ages were 28 and 34, and 75 per cent were in the age range from 17 to 40, indicative of a young population. The other significant feature of the sample is the variation in length of residence in Alice Springs, around the mean of 9.3 years. Geographically remote growth-communities in Australia tend to have transient populations staying only a short time. In the sample the most frequently occurring length of residence was less than two years; 25 per cent of the sample had been resident for two years or less. Five years of residence or less accounted for nearly 42 per cent of the sample. This value compares well with Burnley's August 1980 migration sample reported in chapter 5 in which 46 per cent of the sample had been resident less than five years. In addition, 64 per cent of the sample stated that they would be living in Alice Springs in six years' time. The average length of stay was only 2.5 years, with 66 per cent choosing to leave if possible in the range 6 months to 4.5 years from the time of the surveys. Burnley's migration survey undertaken in August 1980 (chapter 5) outlines the destinations and reasons (tables 5.19 and 5.20). Once again response patterns were consistent. A transient population with compounding factors such as rapid growth and high inputs of tourists forms an unlikely basis for the development of persistent and recurrent social, economic, and political networks.

The field survey schedules were in four parts. The first part concerned attributes of age, place of birth, and other non-attitudinal information. The second was an open-ended statement approach. A completed schedule is presented as an example in Appendix A, with the responses to the prompts presented in italics. The third part of the schedule required respondents to indicate their degree of agreement or disagreement with twenty statements, each of which related to some aspect of everday life in Alice Springs. They did not span the whole range of daily and less frequent events, but they do provide an opportunity to identify additional dimensions of life experience beyond those obtained from the open-ended statements discussed below. They also provide an opportunity for some validation of the results obtained from those open-ended statements; possibly pointing to areas worthy of more detailed study than we have been able to undertake.

Finally, the field surveys provided an opportunity for the respondents to inform us about certain specific events recurring in Alice Springs from year to year and also about non-work activities which they periodically engaged in. Three-day diaries were also kept by 55 respondents, but only 20 diaries were kept sufficiently well to be of use to us, and this small number does not allow any acceptable analysis that can usefully be presented here.

The Open-ended Statement Segment

In this approach, adopted elsewhere in studies of remote settlements in northern Australia by the CSIRO (Brealey and Newton 1978), sampled residents were asked to complete a set of statements in any way that allowed them to express the feelings prompted by the incomplete statements. To illustrate the approach, some examples of completed statements follow. The words in parentheses are the incomplete or prompt statements and the completed statements follow, verbatim.

FIG. 4.1. Distribution of Sample Points 1980 and 1981, Alice Springs January-February Survey

TABLE 4.1. A Summary of the Characteristics of the Total Sampled Population, 1980-1981 (percentage values have been rounded)

Attribute Number Mean Maximum Minimum Percentage
Females 139       59.7
Males 94        
Age 233 37.4 71 15  
Single 28       12.0
Married 182       78.1
Widowed 10       4.3
Other 13       5.6
Preschool age dependents
None 164       70 4
One 46       19.7
Two 21       9.0
Three 2       0.9
Primary age dependents
None 138       59.2
One 46       19.7
Two 38       16.3
Three 9       3.9
Four 2       0.9
Secondary age dependents
None 184       79.0
One 29       12.4
Two 20       8.6
Tertiary age dependents
None 220       94.4
One 10       4.3
Two 3       1.3
Other dependents
None 222       95.3
One 9       3.9
Two 2       0.9
Length resident 233 9.3 61 under 1  
Access to car
Yes 196       85.0
No 19       8.2
Sometimes 10       4.3
Usually 6       2.6
Occupational status
Full-time job 164       70.4
No full-time job 41       17.6
Part-time job 26       11.2
Retired 2       0.9

1. (There is too much emphasis on) sport, especially on Sundays-affects family cohesiveness.
2. (if only) this town had a proper movie theatre.
3. (More attention should be paid to) women's affairs, baby-sitting services, and cheaper air fares for residents.
4. It is appalling to realize that a town of 14,000 people has no public transport. (If only) prompt.
5. (There is too much emphasis on) sport.
6. (If only) there were more night activities (sport). The temperatures of the day prevent good attendances at anything during the summer.
7. (Living here I find that) I can get a lot more done in the same time than in a big city.
8. (I wish it wasn't so) maligned by some of its transient population.
9. (More attention should be paid to) whole family activities.

Then again, as is the fate of many human science researchers, there was the comment: (Living here would be) better if it weren't for outside interference and opinion!

A total of 3,262 coded responses were obtained, of which 641 were blank, i.e., the prompt did not elicit any comment. Of the total, 1,136 completed statements, including 641 not answered, could not be classified as either favourable or unfavourable. Apart from the blanks the rest were classified into one of nine major categories and further sub-classified into one of forty-five minor categories nesting within the major categories. The ninth major category, classed as unidentified, included responses that could not be classified into any one of the eight major and forty-five minor categories.

Figure 4.2 illustrates the previous place of residence of the sample population before moving to Alice Springs, and for comparison with other work undertaken by Parkes in the arid zone mining town of Paraburdoo in Western Australia, the previous residential location of a small, remote population is also shown.

Table 4.2 classifies the 3,262 responses to the 1980 and 1981 surveys into nine major categories and three levels or types of responses to each: indeterminate, favourable, and unfavourable. Indeterminate simply means that it was not possible to determine whether the statement which followed the prompt words was favourable or unfavourable. That it belonged to a particular major category often posed decision problems, but the guidelines for allocation were based as strictly as possible on the work by Brealey and Newton (1978) for remote arid zone settlements (mining towns) in Western Australia. The major and minor categories adopted also followed their scheme so that future comparative research on Australia's arid zone settlements would be facilitated.

There were 641 prompts not answered, representing 56.4 per cent of indeterminate returns and 19.7 per cent of all returns. (The questionnaire schedule instructed respondents only to complete those prompts which they reacted to.)


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