Launch of our new database

We are delighted to announce that we have  launched our new online, interactive  database .

Although the database is accessible online, it can also be downloaded in Excel spread sheet format.

The database allows its users to:

  • Search for individual writers and find out more about their demographic characteristics, such as age/year of birth, gender, occupational category, marital status.
  • Search for writers with specific demographic characteristics, such as gender, or year of birth.
  • Identify writers’ writing behaviours – showing the directives to which individual writers have responded.
  • Search for directives and themes.

We have written some FAQs intended to help new users.  There are also some simple tools (with instructions) to compare the Mass Observation writers with the broader UK population.

We hope that the database is easy to use. But if you identify any problems, please use the contact information at the top of the database website.

Over the next few weeks we are going to be publishing some ‘How to use the database’ videos/vlogs on the Mass Observation Archive’s YouTube channel.

We are also going to publish some videos/vlogs on some of the findings from the analyses that we have been working on. Please watch this space for updates.

 

 

 

Link

I was invited to present at the Research Methods Festival 2016 (RMF)  being held at the University of Bath, on the question ‘What is Mass Observation’ ?  This was a great opportunity to:

  • introduce Mass Observation to an audience that didn’t know much about this great source of qualitative data
  • provide some information on why we have been undertaking the Defining Mass Observation Project
  • provide some simple findings from the project, on ‘Who are the Mass Observation writers?’

Do take a look at the presentation in the link above, if you are interested.

Taking part in the RMF was a really positive experience. The audience were really friendly and interested in the presentation. Everyone attending seemed to get a real buzz out of thinking about methods, and how and why we use certain methods and data sources.  And I was able to attend some really interesting and exciting presentations.  My particular high point was a session on ‘Paradata’ which had some strong cross-overs with the Defining Mass Observation project.

 

Prescient Observers

It is very difficult to predict the future in politics. In recent months the Conservative Party won a parliamentary majority in the General Election whilst almost every polling organisation predicted a hung parliament. Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party lost an independence referendum but nevertheless gained enormous electoral support. Latterly, and perhaps most surprisingly of all – certainly for political pundits and bookmakers alike – veteran Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party despite beginning the contest as a 100-1 also-ran. Political expertise, it seems, is overrated.

So are the ‘ordinary’ Mass Observation (MO) writers any better at this? Much like contemporary commentators in both print and social media, MO writers are not shy of making political predictions about the future of their society. This was especially true of the Social Divisions directive in 1990. This directive, as the October 12 blog referred to, touched on broad issues of social, economic and demographic change, issues which encouraged some MO writers to respond in a ‘state of the nation’ manner which considered political ideologies and human nature. Take, for example, H1806’s thoughts on Communist societies:

‘It is virtually impossible to create a society of equal opportunity… A uniform society would produce a most boring way of living similar to Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia. The human race needs variety and stimulation from different sources. We need competition in our lives which inevitably create rich and poor. As long as we do not go to the extremes this state would prove more colourful and exciting for as I have previously stated life would be dull if all our speech, colour, finances were roughly equal.’

The inevitability of competition and inequality in human societies due to our nature remains a commonplace view. For example, in a recent article for the Guardian, the campaigner and author George Monbiot, quotes a soon to be published report by the Common Cause Foundation which found that 78% of people believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

However, amongst the general political trends foreshadowed in the MO archive there are occasional moments of prescience in which our present appears to be repeating the past with uncanny similarities. The Conservative Government’s support for academies over local authority schools and the recent decision to approve a new grammar school has received an enormous amount of media coverage and analysis from proponents and critics. The latter though needed only to consult R470 who outlined the same critiques twenty-five years earlier:

‘There is an inbred desire to get back to the Grammar School , the nursery of the middle class. The opted out school is the future school of the ‘haves’.   The remaining Council schools will be just as the Council schools of my childhood, the place to dump kids to comply with the descendants of the 1877 Education Act. With minimum staff, facilities and equipment to educate the future working class to read and write (not too well).’

R470’s perspective may be more emotive than the mainstream press but its ideological foundation is much the same. This shows that you don’t need to be a highly educated Guardian journalist to critique public policy. Sometimes, like R470, you just have to live it. MO writers like R470 often used their personal accounts to reflect on the politics of their own period as well as the problems they surmised correctly would persist in our contemporary society. Thus, they do not see their role as just ‘observers’ of their everyday lives but of their whole society.

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.

‘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