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.

 

 

 

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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.

Welcome to our first blog!

We were delighted to find out that we were successful in gaining funding from the ESRC to begin work on the ‘Defining Mass Observation’ project; and we are thrilled that that this is a collaborative project, with academics working in partnership with the Mass Observation Archive (MOA).

The project aims to find out more about the 4,000 people who have been writing for the contemporary Mass Observation Project (MOP) since it started in 1981.  We hope this will benefit a wide range of communities: schools, adult education groups, community groups, lay researchers, academics, policy makers and practitioners.

Why we are doing this

For some time there has been a debate about the ‘representativeness’ of the MOP writers. The MOA has undertaken some basic analyses of its writers, and found that at certain points in the lifetime of the MOP, writers have been over-represented by women, aged 50+, living in the South East. Using these analyses, some academics have argued that the MOP writers are not representative of the broader UK population, and thus their writing should not be used for research purposes. Other academics have argued that the depth and quality of MOP writing makes it a unique longitudinal resource that can be used by a range of different types of researchers, from all walks of life, and from any disciplinary field.  Unfortunately this debate has impacted on the trust and use of the archive.

This project aims to finally put an end to this debate by producing sophisticated analyses of MOP writers that provide clear descriptions of writers and their socio-economic characteristics, and insights into how writers perceive themselves.  This will enable all users of the archive to be confident about how and why they use this resource.

What we hope to achieve by the end of the project

At the end of this project we will have produced several outputs that will be of direct benefit to the users and potential users of the MOP:

  • An interactive, online, searchable database, enabling archive users to undertake a wide variety of searches of writer characteristics and responses to different directives.  This will be accessible through the MOA website.
  • Published accessible reports and articles describing MOP writers, that will be of interest to lay and academic audiences
  • A day conference launching the interactive database.

Time-line

The project will run until 2016.  We aim to provide regular updates on our progress. So please keep visiting.

And, please leave comments!  We would love to know what you think about the project, and the website.

Rose