Profile Hugh Mackay

The social researcher has seen great changes in his long career.

The social researcher has seen great changes in his long career.

Hugh Mackay has spent 50 years listening to people, gauging the collective mood of the nation and publishing the results in reports and books. Mackay, considered a pioneer of social research in this country, has commented on many topics, ranging from the place of women in society to the information deluge and our increasing materialism.

Now, at 70, he's hanging up his research boots to concentrate on writing novels. After selling his renowned Mackay Report to the French research company Ipsos in 2003, then consulting to the company for four years, he has spent this year adjusting to a working life that is not highly scheduled around quarterly research projects for the report.

"It's an odd feeling . liberating," he says. "I've spent my life sitting in people's homes talking to them and listening - I've always been an observer, a listener, perhaps at the expense of participation. Now I can be more opinionated. I don't have to check everything I say against the data."

Mackay went into public opinion research straight from school, aged 16, working for McNair Survey (now ACNielsen). His father, who worked in advertising, had heard of the embryonic field of social research and suggested to his son that it would suit him.

At night Mackay studied social psychology (focusing on how people behave in groups), then left McNairs to work in audience research for the ABC. Since then he has run his own research company, basing his finding on small group discussions and individual interviews, rather than large surveys.

Mackay says the greatest change he has observed is the place of women in Australian society. "In the 1950s women were second-class citizens," he says, noting that they were automatically paid less than men and received less superannuation, had to resign from the public service when they got married and couldn't travel overseas without their husband's permission.

Most changes, he believes, have been positive. But we are also more materialistic and debt-laden, with higher levels of anxiety and depression.

And Mackay detects a decline in our sense of belonging to a community. More people are living alone, both partners in a marriage often work, meaning less mothers are around the neighbourhood during the day, and we go everywhere by car, so local footpath traffic has dwindled.

"But I think the tide is turning again on this. There are a lot more signs now of people wanting to connect with the herd," Mackay says, noting the rise of activities such as book clubs and choirs and eating out with friends. "I think a major social change over the next 10-15 years will be more active participation in the local community."

However, it won't be Mackay documenting the trend. He's now a full-time writer, working on a second edition of his 2007 book Advance Australia Where? and his fifth novel.

"The novels are not research reports but they are certainly enriched by the research I have done," he says. "As a researcher, I've learned never to ask 'why'. It's the question we always want answered but when we ask it directly, it puts pressure on people to come up with a rational-sounding explanation which is more likely to conceal than reveal the truth. 'Is there anything else you'd like to say about that?' or even 'tell me more' works better - in personal relationships, as in research."

THE BIG QUESTIONS

Biggest break Landing a job in the audience research department at the ABC in 1960, when there was a ferment of new thinking about mass communication and about research methods. I became one of the Australian pioneers of qualitative research.

Biggest achievement Launching The Mackay Report in 1979 and running it for 25 years. As a continuous program of syndicated social research based on qualitative methods, this project was - and still is - unique in the world.

Biggest regret That I didn't go overseas to study and travel when I was in my 20s. I would have benefited from exposure to international thinking at an earlier age - and, having been an evening student at Sydney University, I would have loved a year or two of full-time study.

Best investment My own business. It gave me the freedom to take my career in any direction I chose and to decide which clients I'd work for.

Worst investment Luxury cars. A lot of fun but too much money wasted learning the lesson of depreciation.

Attitude to money It has only ever been about having the freedom to choose how to live. The aspiration to accumulate wealth for its own sake is the obscenity of modern capitalism.

Personal philosophy The greatest of all human needs is the need to be taken seriously. Therefore, the greatest contribution we can make to the health of our society is to take each other seriously; to listen attentively; to respond compassionately.


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