Mass-Observation. Text, Context and Analysis of the Pioneering Pamphlet and Movement

Purcell, Jennifer J.
The Mass-Observation Critical Series
London 2023: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 145 S., 9 SW-Abb.
£ 58.50 (Hardback) / £ 17.99 (Paperback)
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Daniel Siemens, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Newcastle University

This book is part of a new series that aims to (re-)introduce Britain’s pioneering Mass-Observation oral history project to modern-day historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and a wider general readership.1 Founded in the second half of the 1930s, Mass-Observation was started to document and analyze the life of “ordinary” Britons, their routines, habits, and attitudes. As series editor Jennifer J. Purcell emphasizes, it was not only a substantial research project loosely associated with academia. It was also a social movement that propagated a pioneering bottom-up approach, encouraging hundreds of laypeople to become observers of their own practices and everyday surroundings. To paraphrase Immanuel Kant’s famous dictum, one might say that they believed in the enlightenment of humanity’s emergence from a (not necessarily) self-imposed immaturity and in their potential to make a meaningful, democratic contribution to the disciplines of (urban) sociology, psychology, anthropology, and ethnology.

The book opens with a short but succinct introduction by series editor Purcell before a substantial chapter by Ben Highmore provides an informed overview of Mass-Observation’s “quasi-manifesto” from 1937 and the initial years of the movement in pre-World War II Britain. Highmore carefully reconstructs the scientific and political contexts in which the Mass-Observation program was formulated, including the long tradition of radical empiricism in British political thought and concerns about the appeal and rise of fascism in interwar Europe. He also positions the movement in the “longer tradition of ‘civic science’” and argues that it followed the “cultural practices of collective ornithology and natural history societies that recruited amateurs to pursue their mass observations from the mid-nineteenth century” (p. 23). More critical for Highmore is the political contribution Mass-Observation made as a counterbalance to mass media, which claimed to speak on behalf of the population. Mass-Observation’s founders propagated genuine forms of participation and advocated for the right of men and women to find a voice in an increasingly capitalist environment. Reflecting on the present day, Highmore argues that current approaches to information-sharing on social media and the limited influence users on such platforms have in shaping them (not to speak of the minimal chance to benefit financially from the content they create) highlight the lasting contribution of Mass-Observation.

At the heart of the essay collection is a reprint of the original pamphlet drafted by two of the founders of Mass-Observation, the journalist Charles Madge (1912–1996) and the university-trained ornithologist and later anthropologist Tom Harrisson (1911–1976). They were in their mid-20s when they published this pamphlet, which was distributed widely. The media also reported extensively on the project, albeit not always in a friendly manner. Harrisson and Madge defined Mass-Observation as an “observation by everyone of everyone, including themselves” and praised it as a social technique with high emancipatory potential. They did not share concerns about mass surveillance and self-disciplining being voiced at the time, most famously by the writer George Orwell. Instead, they advocated for a “scientific study of human social behaviour” (p. 34), arguing that while anthropologists had already studied “primitive peoples” in different parts of the word, similar basic knowledge about the Western world – an “anthropology of ourselves” – was still lacking. This blind spot in Western consciousness was to be overcome, or, they claimed, magic, superstition, and its commercial exploitation would continue to dominate.

Against this background and at a time of substantially increased mass literacy, the public education of writing and reading ought to be supplemented by self-awareness and a better understanding of one’s daily practices and beliefs. Harrisson and Madge argued that this was not to be achieved by trained specialists but instead through careful observation by everyday people of their everyday lives, the “natives” of the Western world themselves (p. 53). This investigation would not constitute an invasion of their private lives, the founders claimed, as they were only interested in individuals “in so far as they are typical of groups” (p. 45). However, the authors did not consider the question of who defined these groups or the criteria for belonging. Their program was thus conservative, at least insofar as the existing social classes and their boundaries were not up for discussion.

Most of the groundwork was to be done by laypeople, the so-called observers. They were to be recruited “from all classes, from all localities and from every shade of opinion” (p. 47). Prior scientific training was not required. The data they collected through interviews, reports, and questionnaires would then be used by so-called scientific experts to develop long-term research plans. Among the innovative ideas for new projects was a museum of sound, smell, food, and domestic objects. Advertisements and mass media were also to be studied. Mass-Observation identified the Middletown project in the USA2 and the study of the unemployed at Marienthal near Vienna3 as related projects. However, its ambition was both wider-ranging and more bottom-up due to the prominent involvement of ordinary people as agents and not only as objects of research (p. 49). Some of the most original topics observers in the mid-1930s proposed for future study were telephone behavior, funerals, “litter on the streets,” smoking, “the cultural significance of the indoor plant,” and also – surprisingly topical – the “reactions for and against vaccination” (p. 63). Mass-Observation focused on Great Britain but was driven by “international perspectives”; its founders expected it to contribute to overcoming racial stereotypes (not necessarily hierarchies) in the United Kingdom and beyond: “To see ourselves as others see us is the first step towards objectivity about other races” (p. 54).

The first Mass-Observation movement ended a couple of years after the Second World War. The founders left, and Mass-Observation became a private firm in 1949 and registered as a market research limited company. It is not without irony that advertisers and the government found the data and results the movement had produced most useful. Although the high hopes of raising social self-awareness and change from within did not materialize, the data produced has proven highly useful for generations of historians. They have explored the Mass-Observation archives, located since the revival of the project in 1981 at the University of Sussex in Brighton, for their studies on various aspects of British life in the twentieth century. Many of the archival holdings are digitized and, via the Fachinformationsdienst Geschichtswissenschaft, easily accessible to researchers at universities in Germany.4

Two further essays conclude the book. An interdisciplinary reflection by Rachel Hurdley argues for a reconsideration of the democratic ambitions of the Mass-Observation project, exploring the materiality of its archives and refocusing on the dialogue between researchers and the “researched” that Mass-Observation initiated. As Hurdley notes, “the founders’ vision of a democratic social science, as both social research and social movement, presents a compelling future for sociology as a politicized, public endeavour of active citizens and engaged academics” (p. 92). The final contribution is from the editor, Purcell. She documents extracts from three interviews she conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic with former collaborators of Mass-Observation. These interviews (and the biographical sketches of the interviewees) allow for insights into the 1970s and 1980s when the original ideas of Mass-Observation drew renewed interest from a younger generation of sociologists and historians of everyday life.

Overall, this thought-provoking book not only makes an original contribution to the historiography of Mass-Observation (and oral history more broadly) but also raises questions about the emancipatory potential of social science research and the academic and commercial use of social data. Whereas Purcell emphasizes that, given the “deep cynicism of our own age, it seems admirable that a group of individuals imagined a democratic civil project aimed at taking down power brokers” (p. 5), the re-reading of the original 1937 pamphlet also points at some of the more ambivalent aspects of this endeavor.

1 See (27.04.2024).
2 Robert S. / Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown. A Study in American Culture, New York 1929; idem, Middletown in Transition. A Study in Cultural Conflicts, New York 1937.
3 Marie Jahoda / Hans Zeisel, Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal. Ein soziographischer Versuch über die Wirkungen langandauernder Arbeitslosigkeit. Mit einem Anhang zur Geschichte der Soziographie, Leipzig 1933.
4 For the homepage of the current Mass-Observation Project at the University of Sussex, see (27.04.2024); for access to the (older) digitized holdings via the Fachinformationsdienst Geschichtswissenschaft, see (27.04.2024).