Mass Observation

Other Early Works

Arguably, Mass Observation is another fore-runner of literary docu-memoir. The Movement, a social research investigative organisation in the UK, was founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrison, poet and reporter Charles Madge, and documentary film-maker and historian Humphrey Jennings. The anonymous writer in Spender’s Worktown-Mass Observation suggests the founders “felt that there was a gap in real knowledge about the lives of ordinary people.… The media generally portrayed the population as having a broad consensus about the issues of the day. The Mass-Observation was formed to test his depiction of reality …” (1-2).

The founders of Mass Observation published their findings in 1939 in a book of social reportage titled Britain by Mass Observation, subtitled “The Science of Ourselves.”  Madge and Harrison report on ordinary people’s views on science. They reveal that the media of the day indicated that the public openly welcomed modern advances in science, and write that “the interviewers asked” the people in the street and in public places “if they were interested in science, what they thought about it, and if they read about it; then let them talk and kept a verbatim record …” (14-15). Madge and Harrison then give some of “the many recorded examples of indifference”, one of which is: “2. Man of 30. ‘Do you mean them crackbrained blokes who write them books, no I never read them for years since I was a kid, they do things I don’t know, wot should we know abawt anyways, not in my life chum.’” (14-15). Madge and Harrison conclude that “the main reasons for hostility to science were” that advances in the field led to people losing their jobs, that it helped a select few make “big profits,” and that it “was used for weapons of war” (14-15).

Spender’s Worktown assert that the team “decided that the best way to understand what real people did and what they thought about the world was to watch and record them as they went about their daily lives. This was generally without [people’s] knowledge,” though the team also conducted some written surveys (2). Consumer tape-recorders were, again, not yet available. About five hundred volunteers kept personal diaries in which they secretly recorded overheard conversation, and observable behaviour. Once a month, the recorders sent their diaries into Mass Observation. The anonymous writer in Archives Hub points out that, “No special instructions were given to diarists, and consequently the diaries vary in style and content” (2). Like Mayhew, the Movement recorded the “voices” of the people—using the subjects’ own dialects—and used selections of this verbatim material in the work. Unlike Mayhew, the Movement do not give character sketches of the subjects and they do not impose their own views and opinions and judgements on the text. They simply note what was written by the media, offset against the diarists’ recordings, and state their findings. The literary docu-memoir form had not yet evolved, but Madge and Harrison were aware of a trend. In talking about their sociological research they say, “This book aims to give the other side of the picture” to what has been given out by the authorities and the media, by giving “both ear and voice” to what ordinary people are feeling (9).

Nick Hubble notes that the diaries and anthologies in the Movement’s written report can be directly linked to the “huge growth” in “the academic study of Life Writing” and a “corresponding rise in in the public interest in biographies and autobiographies; especially historical accounts by ‘ordinary’ people’ ” (1-2). Hubble finds that the diaries created by the Movement’s observers show a potential reflexivity of the process for the diarists. Many of the diarists note in their diaries that while writing their diaries “they became aware of themselves as makers of history” and this gave them “the confidence to pronounce on public matters with an authority they would not otherwise have had” (2). Hubble suggests that because these diaries were then “fed back to the Mass Observation and Harrison” and came together in the founders’ written report, the self-reflexivity in the process becomes amplified (2). Hubble writes: “The potentially endless reflexivity of this process captures the logic of Mass Observation that if everyone were a Mass Observer then the observation of another would always be in some way an observation of oneself, and so, therefore, the divisive boundaries between people—between classes … —would dissolve” (2). Hubble adds: “It is this inherent logic that makes a Mass Observation diary, at least potentially, collectively self-reflexive in a way that exceeds the self-reflexivity of a normal diary” (2-3). Ben Highmore’s essay on Mass Observation ends with the injunction to, “‘Pay heed to the fabric of memory, to the moment of memorial. These documents were not collected primarily, to furnish material for the social and cultural historians of the future. They are explosive documents, or they are meant to be.…’ ” (qtd. in Hubble 3). Hubble adds: “What is particularly explosive about Mass Observation is the link it highlights between its collective form of self-reflexivity and social agency” (3).

Works cited

Hubble, Nick. “Mass Observation Online.” Rev. of Britain by Mass Observation, by Charles Madge and Tom Harrison. Reviews in History: Covering books and digital resource across all fields of history. 1-4. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Madge, Charles, and Tom Harrison. Britain by Mass Observation/ the book arranged and presented by Charles Madge and Tom Harrison. Harmondsworth: Penguin  Books, 1939. Print.

Spender’s Worktown-Mass Observation. 1-31. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.

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