How research can save democracy: an interview with Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a distinguished social researcher and Fellow of the AMSRS.

I think I’ve heard you say there’s no such thing as a national community, is this useful way to think about Australia?

Our defining characteristic is its diversity, and that’s increasingly the case. When you say ‘community’ that implies something that’s got some degree of homogeneity. When I think of community, it’s about relatively small chunks that together make up a society. When we’re talking about the national thing I think it makes more sense to talk about Australian society than the Australian community because [by] society, we understand that’s a big complex organic creature. When we think of community it’s people who are rubbing along together but when we think of society, the sense of connectedness between a farmer in north Queensland and chiropractors in the inner west of Sydney, it’s almost non-existent, they could be on different planets. And societies are like that, which is why I prefer that term if we are talking about the umbrella nation.

Why do you feel that the quality of the conversation or the communication between government and society more generally is important?

If we are talking about true government advertising, it is a very important channel of communication between government and society as long as the originators of it, the strategists, recognise that it’s not going to be one size fits all, because the target is often always universal — although some advertising is very specific to [a] particular person’s need, for example their need for social security support or to understand what benefits are available to them or to have some policy explained to them. I think the hazard for government advertising, as for commercial advertising, is to think that there is a market out there and we are going to say what we want to say to the market without recognising all the variations between the segment and the market, which needs to be addressed.

Overall do you feel that the tenor of the conversation has changed, do you feel that governments are communicating differently now with people?

I think it has changed radically. If we talk about the political conversation, that is messaging coming from the government in power rather than government departments, that is the public service and government agencies and departments, I think it has changed radically and I think the change is almost entirely for the worse and involves a great deal of dumbing down, sloganeering and rather simplistic approaches to communication. Read more

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The Australian Market & Social Research Society Limited (AMSRS) is a not-for-profit professional membership body of over 2,000 market and social research professionals who are dedicated to increasing the standard and understanding of market and social research in Australia. The Society assists members to develop their careers by heightening professional standards and ethics in the fields of market and social research.

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