OPEN EYE: Amateurs Watch over Our History ; Much of Our Social Research Is Carried out by Unpaid, Untrained, Invaluable Volunteers
Cook, Yvonne, The Independent (London, England)
"When I die, I want to leave this... I'd like to think there is a lot left of me." These words of a retired clerical worker from Brighton explain why she, like hundreds of others, became a contributor to one of the 20th century's most famous social research projects: Mass-Observation.
The diaries kept by about 500 untrained amateur observers during and after the Second World War now provide a unique insight into that period of British history. They are just a small part of the huge, often unrecognised, contribution made to research in Britain by non-academic "amateurs".
The extent of that contribution was revealed in Research Outside the Walls, a conference hosted last month by the Open University's Pavis Centre for Social and Cultural Research. "Lots of research is going on all over the place, but only some is labelled `research', as if only certain sorts count, carried out by certain people, within the walls of a university," said Ruth Finnegan, OU Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences. "This concept needs exploding. There is lots more research going on `outside the walls' than is usually made out."
The original Mass-Observation diaries petered out in the Fifties, after "serious" academics questioned the validity of such subjective accounts. They were replaced by more scientific, survey-based research. That was more objective, undoubtedly, but was it more informative than, for example, the diary accounts of TV-watching on Coronation Day, 1953, when observers described how they darkened their rooms and arranged the chairs in rows to watch the historic event on their brand-new sets?
Mass-Observation has received a new lease of life. In 1981, Sussex University, which had acquired the archive, revived the project by advertising for a new generation of diarists. The director, Dorothy Sheridan, currently has about 300 contributors. "Recently, we asked for their responses to the war in Iraq," she said, "but we also asked them for accounts of what they do for the next four Saturday afternoons, because we are interested in people's leisure time.
"They can write anything from two lines to 30 pages. We don't tell them how to write. It is not just reporting; it is people reflecting on themselves and their views."
Diarists are anonymous (unless they choose otherwise); similarly unsung are the tens of thousands of amateurs who do the bulk of bird- watching in Britain. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) charts the population, distribution, migration patterns and breeding success (or otherwise) of Britain's feathered friends; it employs only a few professionals to analyse these patient observations.
"Our research is not just about description; it is about patterns and causes of change," says Professor Jeremy Greenwood. BTO research has, for example, produced evidence suggesting that the migration patterns of some birds are changing, with more over-wintering in Britain - probably as a result of climate change. Their …
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Publication information: Article title: OPEN EYE: Amateurs Watch over Our History ; Much of Our Social Research Is Carried out by Unpaid, Untrained, Invaluable Volunteers. Contributors: Cook, Yvonne - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: June 3, 2003. Page number: 13. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.