EVENT: 18 July 2016 – Who are the Mass Observation Writers, 1981-2016

18thJulyCome to the launch of ‘The Defining Mass Observation Project’ and database. The event will include:

  • An introduction from Professor Pat Thane
  • The launch of the online database
  • Information on using online interactive tools for sampling writers & writing
  • Information on findings on writers’ socio-demographic characteristics
  • Discussion of writers’ class and identity
  • Discussions on memory and Mass Observation writing
  • Information on using computer assisted data analysis (CAQDAS) to analyse writing
  • Bring a laptop to use the database at the workshop!

The event cost £15 and includes lunch. Book here.


First looks at the Defining Mass Observation Project database

In recent weeks, Ian Waldock and Jason Sadler (both based at Geodata at the University of Southampton) from the project team have started work on the Defining Mass Observation Project database and we now have a website to test.

The database brings together biographical data submitted by the Mass Observation writers upon joining the MO Project with their individual writing record. Using this database, researchers will be able to sample writers based on biographical characteristics and discover more about the writing behaviours of the Mass Observation Project Panel members.

The data in this database has been collected by the Mass Observation Archive and processed by a team of volunteers, who have generously given their time to the Defining Mass Observation project. It was gathered from the biographical forms completed by the Mass Observers when they join the Project and from the catalogue records produced by Mass Observation staff as part of the process to archive new material which has been submitted to Mass Observation.

The information in this database has always been available to researchers, but not in such an accessible form. In the past, to find out more about the biographical profile of the writers, researchers were required to visit the Archive to trawl through thousands of non-electronic records; a very time consuming task! Researchers wanting to know about the response rate to each Directive, were encouraged to use The Keep catalogue. This catalogue contains over a million records relating to the thousands of diverse collections that The Keep cares for, so it is easy for a researcher to get lost amongst all of records!

We hope that this database will enable researchers, for the first time, to discover more about the Mass Observation Project and its writers quickly and remotely. We are excited about the opportunities and projects this will open the Mass Observation Project up to.

We are interested in feedback about the website and database and in getting some users to test the new site. We will update the blog once we have moved on to this stage of the project.

‘They speak for themselves’

Transcript of

Transcript of “They Speak For Themselves” (BBC, June 1939)

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
Example of a biographical sheet completed by a Mass Observer

Example of a biographical sheet completed by a Mass Observer

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’.

By Jessica Scantlebury