On the evening of 1st June 1939 ‘They speak for themselves’ was broadcast on BBC Radio. The programme was presented by the founders of Mass Observation: Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson. In the broadcast, Madge and Harrisson announced Mass Observation to the world and set out the organisations key aims (a transcript of the broadcast can be viewed at The Keep). One of these being that ‘ordinary’ people would have a chance to describe their own lives in their own words and ‘speak for themselves’. While it could be argued that the first phase of Mass Observation was not always true to this, it is a principle that the current Mass Observation Project has tried to hold at the forefront of its mind when recruiting volunteer writers to the Panel.
One way the MO Project has enabled Mass Observers to self define themselves is to us biographical sheets. These sheets, which were introduced into the administration of the Project in 1991, ask the Observers to provide basic information about their age, gender, living situation and occupation. Since the beginning of this year, I have been working with a team of volunteer to transform the information on these sheets onto an spreadsheet that will be analysed by the Defining Mass Observation project team. Five volunteers have been working on the project. These are:
- Claire Chevalier Nash
University of Sussex History MA student
- Monica Burchill
Mature student and long term MO volunteer
- Robyn Long
University of Brighton Sociology BA student
- Samantha MacComack
University of Sussex History BA Student
- Salah Seoudi
University of Sussex Sociology BA student
On the face of it, the project looked to be simple; just a matter of transferring the information across. In practice, however, we came across many complications. The most complicated of which relate to the occupation of the Observer and their partner.
Observers who had completed the forms in the early 1990s would frequently list jobs that no longer exist or have changed how they are described. Often the volunteers (some of whom were born after 1995 or not in the UK) had never heard of the occupation listed. Some notable ones being: telegraphist, typist, miner, cahier and … Bunny Girl. There was also the problem of defining which sector the Observer worked in; are train drivers still public sector workers after the railways were nationalised in 1993?
We also found that Observers would frequently list multiple jobs, responsibilities, duties and hobbies. K2657 describes her job as:
“At home by choice (although divorced) until youngest child starts school. Part time degree student … Help in library at local comp school 2 mornings a week…Prior to marriage, customer service clerk at Yorkshire Water HQ”
Lives are complicated and the Mass Observers push at the boundaries of categorisation. This is something that the Defining Mass Observation Project team continue to discuss as we consider how to define the Observers as well as continuing to allow them to ‘speak for themselves’.