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Mass Observation - Recording everyday life in Britain

The Original Mass Observation

Founders of Mass Observation
Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson
Book cover of First Year's Work by Mass Observation project
A publication by Mass Observation

The three founders and a strange coincidence

Three young men, part of a small group of like-minded friends, are credited with establishing Mass Observation. The origins resulted from a strange coincidence.

Early in 1937, Harrisson's one and only 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.

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 (the Worktown Project), while Madge remained in London to organise the writing of the volunteer panel.

In Bolton, a team of paid investigators went into a variety of public situations: meetings, religious occasions, sporting and leisure activities, in the street and at work, and recorded people's behaviour and conversation 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 central team of Mass-Observers.

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.

See our publications for further reading about the history of the Archive.