Mass Observation in the ‘New Times’

At the start of the 1990s, the Mass Observation Archive sent out two directives. The first was titled ‘Social Divisions’ and the second ‘A Retrospective View of the Eighties’. Though different in content, both directives marked a chronological and social turning point. The Social Divisions directive began by asking Mass Observation (MO) writers:

‘Are there some major divisions in your own environment – class, race, gender, religion, “culture” etc – that invite comment and are typical of contemporary society?’[1]

Page 1 of the Social Divisions directive

Page 1 of the Social Divisions directive

This question, and those that followed, conveyed a sense that changes had taken place in British society in the preceding decade, which were being discussed by influential writers from the political Left, particularly in publications like Marxism Today. Theorists like Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques argued that the end of the 1980s seemed to mark a point at which longer trends, such as deindustrialisation, the replacement of blue collar jobs with white, immigration and rising ethnic and cultural diversity, and struggles for women’s rights, could be taken stock of. The world, as Hall and Jacques asserted in 1989, had changed, ‘not just incrementally but qualitatively… Britain and other advanced capitalist societies [were] increasingly characterised by diversity, differentiation and fragmentation, rather than homogeneity, standardisation and the economies of scale which characterised modern mass society.’[2] In short, these were ‘New Times’.

The wording of the Social Divisions directive interest, and the way in which it reflected the contemporary debates on social change, has really excited the project team. ‘Class’, for example, long thought to be the key division in British society is no longer the only social division to be recognised. Instead, race, gender, religion and ‘culture’ now sit alongside class as potential forms of division, thereby mirroring the demographic, economic and social changes that had taken place in the 1980s and before. The wording of this 1990 directive, and the MO writers’ responses to it, therefore gives us a fascinating insight into how these New Times were received by the British people. The MO writers came from a variety of backgrounds across many of these social divisions and they can consequently help us explore how these New Times were understood, or indeed whether they were seen to be ‘New’ at all.

In looking at how ‘class’ was constructed and defined by the MO writers, we can consider whether they accepted or disputed the occupational models of class being developed in the same period by social scientists. We can see whether class, as well as other divisions like race and gender, was understood as cultural, economic or political, or an inconsistent and amalgamated version of all three. Within the diverse responses there are opinions and views on accent, patterns of consumption and styles of dress sitting alongside discussions of political identity and Thatcherism; virulent racism alongside hopes for ethnically diverse utopias; and tangential personal stories alongside pointed revelations of discrimination and inequality. As researchers for the ‘Defining Mass Observation’ project, it is our role to explore these narratives and understand which themes the MO writers believed important, both individually and collectively. What is clear at even this early stage in the process is that the rich and varied perspectives of the MO writers on these issues provide us with a complex tableaux of Britain at a point in which many of the social and political fault lines of our contemporary society were becoming visible.  Thus, as with all research concerned with the past, it is hard to shake the feeling we are not also examining the present.

Footnotes

[1] See image.

[1] Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, ‘Introduction’, in New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s (London, 1990), p. 11.

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One thought on “Mass Observation in the ‘New Times’

  1. Pingback: The Persistence of Class | Defining Mass Observation

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