Mass Observation sounds like something George Orwell invented for 1984, but actually it is an invitation to pro-social writing. In the last 80 years people have been providing their observations of everyday life, what they hear, see and experience in their own worlds and writing it down it for the Mass Observation Archives. You write and give it away, yes, for free. It’s like a combination of blood donation and planting saplings. You don’t benefit, and indeed the outcomes of your donation might not be seen for years.
A Brief History
Mass Observation was set up in 1937 by Tom Harrisson (anthropologist), Charles Madge (poet and journalist) and Humphrey Jennings (film maker) to support ‘anthropology of ourselves’. They set out to collect material about the everyday life of British Islanders. The Worktown Project, for example, collected material in Bolton.
We are studying the beliefs and behaviour of the British Islanders … the function of Mass-Observation is to get written down the unwritten laws and to make the invisible forces visible … [From First Year’s Work by Mass Observation 1938]
In the Second World War civilian life was studied using surveys and observations. But after the war the organisation moved more into consumer research.
The Archives were transferred to the University of Sussex in the 1970s and Mass Observation was re-launched in 1981, continuing to add to the archives of everyday experiences and making them available for research.
A panel of volunteers have been answering specific questions every year since 1981. These have ranged from questions about Being Overweight, Using the Telephone, Body Piercing and Tattooing, responses to General Elections, and most recently to the EU Referendum one year on. Applications to become volunteers are only accepted in particular categories.
Since 2000 Mass Observation has made 12th May its special day by inviting anyone to send an account of their day.
Books and Mass Observation
Not surprisingly many academic publications are produced from this rich resource. While writing The New Age of Ageing, the authors attended research conferences, including one where a researcher drew on the archives to explore how attitudes to the old had and had not changed.
And there are also publications for a more general market. Here are two.
Nella Last’s War: the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49’ (1981) Edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. Published by Profile Books. Living in Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, Nella Last documented her war-time daily life for Mass Observation. It is touching, moving and at times very funny.
Victoria Wood brought Nella Last to a wider audience in 2006 with her adaptation for tv: Housewife 49.
The second book is A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. I posted my review on this blog here.
There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries which she began when she was 15. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). The diaries lack hindsight. We know what happened, but those living through those times did not know how their world would change. It’s a long book, but full of wit, humour and humanity. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.
For more on this splendid resource, making the invisible visible, writing down the unwritten laws visit their website at www.massobs.org.uk
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