Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Mass Observation as Method

By Emma Casey, Fiona Courage and Nick Hubble

Founded in 1937, Mass Observation has played witness to eight decades of often dramatic social, political, economic and cultural change. It remains one of the most enduring and comprehensive archives to provide rich detail of the intimate and personal ebbs and flows of everyday life. The overwhelming importance of Mass Observation cannot be overemphasized, as Mike Savage remarks in Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940, ‘Mass Observation is the most studied, and arguably the most important, social research institution of the mid-twentieth century’ (2010: 57).

The founders of Mass Observation – Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge – were young radical intellectuals keen to record the hitherto ignored lives and experiences of the working classes. George Orwell in, for example, The Road to Wigan Pier was already producing prolific accounts of working class life that were noted for their focus on everyday and intimate frequently painful experiences of poverty. Mass Observation, as with Orwell’s accounts, became synonymous not only with political radicalism but also radical in the sense that the unrepresentative, qualitative and ‘thick’ description of working class practices stood in opposition to the deductive, statistical accounts and methods that tended to dominate the social sciences. Thus, although Mass Observation shared with early social scientists and critical theorists a commitment to revealing the hidden thoughts and dreams of the masses, Mass Observation dramatically differed in its methodological approach to achieving this. Today, this difference remains stark, with the ‘messy’ and unwieldy data of Mass Observation standing in direct contrast to sociological assumptions about methodological rigour. However, Mass Observation has long been of interest to sociologists, for example at the Birmingham School of Contemporary Cultural Studies whose dual interests in resistance and agency mirrored the approaches of Mass Observation. This is reflected in Stuart Hall’s The Social Eye of the Picture Post (1972) and in Tom Jeffrey’s A Short History of Mass Observation that was published as a CCCS occasional paper.

One of the distinctive facets of Mass Observation is the unique role of the observer both as researcher and researched, archivist and archived. That the observers are part of a collective project is a hugely important feature of Mass Observation particularly in terms of the type of data that is collected. Furthermore, the potential of Mass Observation to provide a reflection of ‘the past’ for future generations of scholars is a theme that runs through Mass Observers’ accounts. Ben Highmore notes the ‘thickly rendered’ and ‘temporal’ atmospheric nature of Mass Observation and remarks that:

‘Mortality, both the finitude of death and the mourning of passing time is a subterranean seam that runs through these documents as correspondents consider their (and others’) past and futures in the context of the ever-changing present.’ (2011, 92)

The papers in the special section of Sociological Research Online have been selected in an attempt to address some of the key methodological debates highlighted here. The papers fall into four key strands, the first of which examines the ‘big’, ‘messy’ and ‘awkwardness’ of the Mass Observation data. In The Materiality of Method: The Case ofthe Mass Observation Archive, Liz Moor and Emma Uprichard observe the peculiarly ‘sensory’ experience of ‘getting dirty with data’ and highlight the unique opportunities that Mass Observation offers social researchers in terms of the materiality of method and the sensuousness of the data.

The second theme is intimacies, the family and personal life. Anne-Marie Kramer’s paper explores the role and status of geneaology in exploring personal and family lives and Mark Bhatti’s paper also connects to this theme by focusing on Mass Observers’ accounts of gardens and gardening.

A third theme addressed by this collection centres around the distinctiveness of the relationship between observers and the data that they produce. Annebella Pollen’s paper considers the complex nature of Mass Observation material and how it is imagined and understood by researchers and contributors alike. In addition, Dana Wilson-Kovacs’ paper considers the use of Mass Observation as tool to aid accounts of the public understanding of science.

The fourth and final theme emerging from the collection relates to the opportunities that Mass Observation offers for producing historical and longitudinal accounts. Emma Casey’s paper traces the relationship of the Archive from its conception in 1937 to its present day incarnation.  Drawing on previously uncovered correspondence between the social researcher and reformer Seebohm Rowntree, his research assistant G.R. Lavers and Tom Harrisson at Mass Observation, Casey shows how this correspondence provides vital information about early debates and uncertainty about the sociological and particularly the methodological potential of Mass Observation. Rose Lindsey and Sarah Bulloch’s paper continues on the theme of Mass Observation as offering opportunities as well as challenges for historical and longitudinal research.

We are very grateful to the contributors to the collection for their hard work in meeting deadlines. We are also optimistic that the collection will continue to reinvigorate sociological interest in Mass Observation and that it will convince readers of Mass Observation’s capacity to permeate the everyday processes and practices through which the social and ‘history’ is continuously made and re-made.


Highmore, Ben (2011). Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. Abingdon, Oxon:

Savage, Mike (2010). Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1 comment: