Mass-Observation was a United Kingdom social research organization founded in 1937. Their work ended in the mid 1960s but was revived in 1981. The Archive is housed at the University of Sussex.
Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires. They also paid investigators to anonymously record people's conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.
The creators of the Mass-Observation project were anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Collaborators included the critic William Empson, the photographer Humphrey Spender, the collagist Julian Trevelyan, and the painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell. Run on a shoestring budget with money from their own pockets and the occasional philanthropic contribution or book advance, the project relied most on its network of volunteer correspondents.
Mass-Observation began after King Edward VIII's abdication in 1936 to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson. Dissatisfied with the pronouncements of the newspapers as to the public mood, the project's founders initiated a nationwide effort to document the feelings of the populace about the historical event by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and "man-in-the-street" interviews on and around the Coronation of George VI.
"May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937 by over two hundred observers" was published in book form. The result tended to subvert the Government's efforts at image-making. The principal editors were Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge, with the help of T. O. Beachcroft, Julian Blackburn, William Empson, Stuart Legg and Kathleen Raine. The 1987 reprint contains an Afterword by Professor David Pocock, director of the Tom Harrisson Mass-Observation Archive.
In August 1939 Mass-Observation invited members of the public to record and send them a day to day account of their lives in the form of a diary. No special instruction were given to these diarists so they vary greatly in their style, content and length. (Source Mass Observation diaries. An introduction. The Mass Observation Archive 1991 P.1). 480 people responded to this invitation and their diaries are now held in the Mass Observation Archive (Source Nella Last's Peace. Profile Books 2008 p 303).
During the Second World War, the Mass-Observation research was occasionally influential in shaping British public policy. In particular, their study of saving habits were used by John Maynard Keynes to successfully argue for tax policy changes. The war also led to a few cases of Mass-Observation doing research on commission for government authorities trying to shape recruiting and war propaganda.
Mass-Observation has been criticised by some as an invasion of privacy. Participants were not only reporting on their own lives; they often commented on their neighbours and friends as well. Such an atmosphere of surveillance was in keeping with the rising culture of espionage, which dominated the Second World War, although it should be noted that Mass-Observation was an independent, not a government, effort aimed at education rather than manipulation of the public.
Mass-Observation had set out to turn the tools of anthropology used to study foreign cultures on Britain's; to be "The Science of Us." Criticism of the scientific validity focusing on the experiment parameters began fairly early, continued throughout its existence, and was a key element in its eventual demise. Because of the self-selecting nature of the observers, they did not represent a scientifically balanced cross-section of British society as a modern public opinion poll would. Although geographically and occupationally diverse, the participants tended to be middle-class, educated, literate, and left of centre.
Decline and End
Following the war, and the departure of project founders Harrisson, Madge, and Jennings, research began to focus on the commercial habits of the country rather than the broader cultural research that characterized its first decade. This turn towards market research was formalized in 1949 when the project was incorporated as a private firm and, under new management, became registered as a market research limited company, Mass Observation (UK) Limited. Eventually the firm was merged with the advertising agency J.Walter Thompson’s UK research agency BMRB, to form MRB International, followed by full merger in the early 1990s.
A reevaluation of the tremendous resource of primary historical material that is the Mass-Observation archives led to a relaunch of the project in 1981. Today, housed at the University of Sussex, Mass-Observation continues to collect the thoughts of its panel of writers through regular questionnaires (known as directives) and is used by students, academics, media researchers and the public for its unique collection of material on everyday life in Britain.