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Senate House Library

‘Observing and Analysing the Ordinary’: Mass-Observation online


Written by
Leila Kassir, Academic Librarian: British, US, Commonwealth, Latin American & Caribbean Literature

For Local and Community History Month, we're looking at the Mass Observation project started in the 1930s and the online resource available through Senate House Library...

In 1937, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, announced the launch of the Mass-Observation project (M-O), which “sought to supply accurate observations of everyday life” (p.13 of Living Through The Blitz). Although initiated as a social research project, the M-O archive also has much to offer those interested in cultural and political history, literature, book history, and psychology.

The core project ran from the late 1930s to the 1950s. During this period, M-O gathered their social data (or observations) using two teams of Mass Observers: a small team of paid investigators and a much larger group of members of the public who volunteered to detail their lives via regular Day Surveys (usually on the 12th of each month), diaries and responses to directives (questionnaires). By 1939 there were 1,500 of these unpaid observers.

The M-O project was revived forty years ago in 1981, and continues to this day. The project archive is physically held at the University of Sussex, but the material from its early-twentieth century beginnings is now available remotely via Mass Observation Online, which is accessible to Senate House Library members. This blog provides a brief overview of some of the material available on this e-resource.

Observers: Inside 85 Davenport Street, planning day's activities with resident Mass Observers  © Bolton Library and Museum © Adam Matthew Digital 2021

The Data: ‘Listen-in to the Movements of Popular Habit and Opinion’

There were many levels of observation at play within the M-O’s process of social data gathering. Firstly, there were obvious class differentials: M-O was founded by three middle-class men and most of the self-selected volunteer observers were also middle-class (the submissions from the few working-class observers have been gathered together via the interactive Map on the resource).

Equally, the volunteer observers were watching, listening-in to, and reporting on the people around them, albeit anonymously, and often documented this eavesdropping in their reports. This is exemplified by one Mass Observer (respondent number 363, a man, residing in Liverpool) who, while dining in a café, admits he was only half listening to his companion, with “the other ½ being engaged by the conversation of three men at the table next to us”, the nature of which conversation he duly records.

Inevitably, the documents created by the volunteers provide subjective comment and reflection, and it is these very personal opinions on work, leisure and daily habits, often expressed in great detail, which make this archive such a rich resource for us today. Many of the reports veer between snippets of the mundanities of daily life and comment on contemporary politics which rupture the everyday. A Mass Observer from Blackpool is a good case in point as he mentions his dinner (“remains of Saturday’s meat”), the weather (“it is raining hard”), and his frustration with his parents (“they always tell me these things at the last minute”) before noting “a wave of angry passion passes through me as I read that Mosley & the Fascists are asking for another march through the East End of London”. This Day Survey was written in September 1937, eleven months after the British Union of Fascists had marched on Cable Street

The research produced by the paid M-O employees was considered to be the more objective material, although the voices of the investigators regularly seep through. This information was gathered using a mixture of questionnaires, observed and overheard data, and relevant ephemera, all of which was formed into Topic Collections. Between them the paid observers reported on a vast miscellany of themes ranging from the socio-political to the pop-cultural, including Housing, Astrology and Spiritualism, Reading Habits, Women in Wartime, Music, Dancing and Jazz, and Propaganda and Morale.
All of the reports gathered from paid and unpaid observers were ultimately collated to form the basis of themed File Reports and also a range of published texts.

200,000 ATS Urgently Needed - WOMEN IN WARTIME 1939-1945, January 1939 - December 1945, © Mass Observation Archive. University of Sussex Special Collections © Adam Matthew Digital 2021

Mack’s Coffee Stall

Within the archive there are four typed pages concerning a night-time coffee stall called Mack’s, which was located where Gower Street meets Euston Road, not far from Senate House Library. The report is now 80 years old, and describes Mack (a Scot whose accent veered between “butlerish English” and “a mild Scottish brogue” depending on who he was serving) and his regular clientele. The synopsis of Mack’s life fills an entire page, focussing on his interests in astrology, Hyde Park orations, travels to Latin America, and Lutheranism. Mack’s customers are also evocatively described: there are soldiers and sailors from Canada and Norway; women sex workers; Harry, an unemployed and unwell Cockney who could be found at the stall in the early hours; a young ATS girl who used to work in a milk bar and is a fan of Gary Cooper; a woman called Molly who is faithful to her husband, works in a factory, and has the symptoms of nascent TB; and members of the Free French, who are quiet and talk in whispers.

It is impossible not to read these pages without wondering what happened to Molly and Harry and all the other interviewees and Mass Observers. Ultimately, one of the real pleasures of the Mass Observation archive is its power to tell us stories of time and place, via the lives of the people who weave in and out of these typed and handwritten documents.

Leila Kassir
Academic Librarian: British, US, Commonwealth, Latin American & Caribbean Literature


Further reading:
•    Search ‘Mass Observation’ on the library catalogue to find books by and about the project
•    E-books about M-O, available to Senate House Library members, include Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self by James Hinton and We Europeans?: Mass-Observation, Race and British Identity in the Twentieth Century by Tony Kushner, Martin Stannard and Greg Walker
•    The library holds many other ‘factual’ / documentary related resources from the 1930s and 1940s, including the journals Fact and Picture Post