Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hugh MacKay - Thoughtful Social Science; Stuck in Last Century

The Australian Market and Social Research Society launched the Social Research Network in Victoria last Tuesday, and to celebrate the occasion, the renowned  researcher and social commentator Hugh MacKay spoke about "Hiding Behind the Guru Mask, and Other Ethical Issues in Qualitative Research".

My background is quantitative; however, I've always considered that non-quantitative data can at the very least inform research and potentially offer significant complimentary information and understanding.  I came away from talk appreciating his thoughtful approach to qualitative research, but disappointed that he has clearly not been able to take on board the opportunities offered by the Internet (and obviously other new technologies).  For a well known social commentator, it's surprising that Mackay is stuck in the last century when it comes to qualitative research.

MacKay's talk began well:

The Place of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research complements quantitative research. It is more than a preliminary surveying of the landscape. Quantitative research explains what has happened; qualitative research why it happened. The "why" is an important question, and not all important questions are capable of being answered qualitatively.  

Qualitative Research is a Valid and Scientific Form of Research

Qualitative research is a part of social science. Apart from a substantial background of basic research in areas such as questionnaire design, interviewing techniques and sampling theory, qualitative research also draws on disciplines such as psychology and behavioral economics.  There are a range of qualitative methods available, ranging from focus groups, ethnography, one-on-one interviews or conversations, observational studies and so on.  

And Then There Are Focus Groups:

Unfortunately focus groups are often seen as the key qualitative method, perhaps by over demanding and under informed clients, who then encourage researchers to offer focus groups as the main option.  And there is a highly undesirable practice of holding focus groups with the client behind one-way mirrors and the focus group verges on entertainment : qualitative research is not show business. 

Mackay also argued that the traditional focus group was far from ideal practice:  a collection of strangers in a strange room. This, he said, was no better than a group of commuters waiting at a bus stop. The preferred focus group was to invite a group of friends to one of their houses, where the facilitator would introduce a topic of discussion, and then step back and listen and observe. There are two advantages of this type of focus group. Firstly, they are easy to recruit, as you're recruiting a group, not a collection of individuals. You invite one person, and they invite a group of their friends. And secondly, groups like this are self-correcting. They correct each other: "hey Bob; I've never seen you ....  ".

MacKay's ideal focus group was questioned by the audience : what's wrong with the group waiting at the bus stop? For some topics, that's the ideal group. Bob isn't going to talk about mental heath or sexual issues with people who are going to see him next week; but maybe he will with people who he will never see again. That group of people waiting at the bus stop would be an ideal group to talk about public transport, public safety and a whole range of important issues.

MacKay's compromise was the suggestion that researchers should experiment with different methods for different situations to discover which methods worked the best.

Watch Out For Quant By Stealth

It's easy to fall into quantitative thinking by stealth.  A qualitative study is not looking to sample views and determine which is the minority or majority view.  That doesn't explain"why". So the researcher needs to be aware and not make statements such as "Here's what most people said... " .


MacKay's statement that analysis and interpretation takes time makes sense.  If a client is looking for instant answers, then that's the job of a journalist, who can report what the respondents said.  The aim of qualitative research is to illuminate our understanding.  Thought and reflection take time.

Going Downhill

The bulk of what Mackay talked about was thoughtful and made a lot sense;  twenty, thirty, even ten years ago, Mackay would have made a great ambassador for qualitative research. But it was clear from his talk that he doesn't see the potential of the Internet for qualitative research. And his comments received strong response : one member of the audience started of by saying " you've made some sweeping comments ...  " and then proceeded to criticize, and quite rightly so in my opinion, MacKay's position.

Mackay had two criticisms of online communities. Firstly, like their off-line counterparts, they are mostly comprised of strangers.  The second and key criticism was that the online experience lacks the richness of the off-line experience.  As far as MacKay is concerned, online is basically text. Text is lacks all the other communication mediums that are present face to face: tone of voice, facial expression, body language, colour, smell, taste.  It's obvious that Mackay has not seen some of the online communities that the Market Research industry has built. One only has to look at the Online Community established for Campbell Arnotts (and presented at this year's market and social research conference) to how vibrant and and rich the online community can be. In this online community, about cooking, respondents were posting text, and photos and videos.  

And Into The Future

As I've made clear in these notes, I appreciated Mackay's thoughtful description of the value of qualitative research.  But to reject online qualitative research outright is not smart professionally.  MacKay might be retired, but he is still an active participant in the industry - he has approx 200 speaking engagements each year and is consulting with the University of Wollongong. A person who presents themselves as a thought leader needs to lead; MacKay has got left behind.

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