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History of Mass Observation

Origins of Mass Observation

Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge

.The Archive is a result of the work of Mass Observation. This social research organisation was founded in 1937 by a group of people, who aimed to create an 'anthropology of ourselves'. They recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. This original work continued until the early 1950s.

The founders and a strange coincidence

Mass Observation was launched in the pages of the New Statesman on 30 January 1937. The letter was signed by three diversely talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). These men met through a strange coincidence. Early in 1937, Harrisson's published poem appeared in the New Statesman on the same page as a letter from Madge and Jennings, in which they outlined their London-based project to encourage a national panel of volunteers to reply to regular questionnaires on a variety of matters. Interested by the similarity in aims to his own current anthropological study of the British, Harrisson contacted Madge and Jennings.

First Year's Work

An anthropology of ourselves

Within the space of a month, the two projects, related in their ideals, although different in the techniques they employed to gather information, joined together under the title of Mass Observation. Their aim, stated in a further letter to the New Statesman, was to create an "anthropology of ourselves" - a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. 

Observers and diarists

Harrisson and a team of observers continued their study of life and people in Bolton (known as the Worktown Project), while Madge remained in London to organise the writing of the volunteer panel. In Bolton, a team of investigators went into a variety of public situations such as:

-religious occasions,
-sporting and leisure activities
-on the street
-in the workplace

They recorded people's behaviour and conversations in as much detail as possible. The material they produced is a varied documentary account of life in Britain. The National Panel of Diarists was composed of people from all over Britain who either kept diaries or replied to regular open-ended questionnaires sent to them by the team in the London office.

From social issues to market research

Although Jennings and then Madge moved on, Mass Observation continued to operate throughout the Second World War and into the early 1950s, producing a series of books about their work as well as thousands of reports. Gradually the emphasis shifted away from social issues towards consumer behaviour. In 1949, Mass Observation was registered as a limited company. 

The Archive at the University of Sussex, 1970s

Mass Observation Project Directives

In 1970, the Archive came to the University of Sussex and was opened up as a public resource for historical research. The Archive holds all the material generated by Mass Observation between 1937 and 1949, with a few later additions from the 1950s and 1960s.The Archive is now a charitable trust in the care of the University. In 2013, the Archive moved to  The Keep as part of the University's Special Collections.

The Mass Observation Project

The original Mass Observation idea of a national panel was revived from the Archive in 1981. Through the press, television and radio, new volunteer writers or 'Mass Observation correspondents' were recruited from all over Britain. The Mass Observation Project also collects material about everyday life through the 12th May Diary Project and other projects and partnerships. Find out more about the Mass Observation Project here.

Designated status

In 2006, the Mass Observation Archive was awarded Designated status. The Designation Scheme identifies the pre-eminent collections of national and international importance held in England's non-national museums, libraries and archives, based on their quality and significance. The Scheme is administered by Arts Council England

History of Mass Observation 

Fiona Courage and Jessica Scantlebury talk about the history of Mass Observation in the video bellow.