Mass Observation

On Wednesday I was in Brighton for “Engaging Mass Observation”, a conference looking at the post-1981 holdings of the Mass Observation Archive. Mass Observation is an ancestor of today’s participatory culture – started in 1937 by painter, poet and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, journalist Charles Madge and anthropologist Tom Harrisson to gain an understanding of British society as seen from within – an “anthropology of ourselves” as they called it. They set about the study of everyday life in a unique new way – along with a team of observers they recruited a panel of volunteers who wrote diaries and responded to thematic briefings with descriptions of their own lives.

The first phase of the project carried on until the Fifties, providing the beginnings of market research along the way, and resulted in a wealth of material which is held in the Sussex archive. What’s less well known is that the project was re-started in 1981 and still continues. MO materials are a fascinating resource, and in being first person accounts – subjective writing by a self-selected group – they challenge traditional social science and trouble research categories. While Humphrey Jennings was only briefly involved compared to Madge and Harrisson he was influential in giving MO a Surrealist impulse, an interest in dream, imagination and the unconscious which is one of the special features of MO within English social research.  In the opening session of Wednesday’s event -“Intimate Archives/Uncanny Records” – Everyday Life and Cultural theorist Ben Highmore reflected on the strange, rich particularity of contributions to an Autumn 1983 household survey. Discussing the character of MO content he cited a favourite quote of his from the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “Both dreams and rocks are things of this world”.

One of the first publications that came out of the original MO project was “May the Twelfth”, a reflection of the day of the Coronation of George VI in 1937, compiled from the individual reports of hundreds of Mass Observers. In a review at the time novelist Evelyn Waugh was full of praise,’… it would be hard to find any recent work of the same length which had so little that was dull and so much that was highly amusing…It provides a real documentary survey of the event as seen by the crowds.’  BBC 2’s Video Nation project was inspired by and explicitly modelled on Mass Observation. One of the things we did within that project was to ask the fifty or so contributors to make video recordings in response to significant national events and these collective portraits included recordings around the General Election and New Labour landslide in May 1997 and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales a few months later.

When we were setting Video Nation up in 1993 co-producer Chris Mohr and I went to Sussex, looked at the archive and talked to the archivist Dorothy Sheridan. It was good to see Dorothy, now retired from her role as Head of Special Collections at the University of Sussex and busier than ever with MO as Development Director, at this week’s conference. The safe-keeping of the archive owes so much to her. She’s been its guardian, studied MO with a special interest in gender and World war 2, produced anthologies, supported innumerable research projects and spin-offs, knows the collection inside and out. And, having started there while Tom Harrisson was still involved, she also provides a precious link to the MO founders and to some of the original observers.

MO still occasionally conduct day surveys and they decided to undertake one this May 12th, the day of the conference. A call was put out via the MO website, bulletin and mailing list and this time on Twitter –@MassObsArchive. With the country gripped by the high drama in government following the inconclusive election result, May 12th 2010, the last day of Gordon’s Brown’s premiership, turned out to be an extraordinary day to survey the nation. Mass Observation’s unique work continues…