The Science of Ourselves: Seventy Years Ago This Week, a Letter in the New Statesman Launched the Mass-Observation Project. It Was the Birth of a Public Fascination with "Ordinary" Lives Which Is Still with Us, Argues Joe Moran
Moran, Joe, New Statesman (1996)
It all began with a letter published in the New Statesman 70 years ago, on 30 January 1937. The letter was jointly written by three diversely talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). It invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, an "anthropology at home ... a science of ourselves". Its list of suggested topics for investigation read like a surrealist poem on the hidden strangeness of mundane life: "Behaviour of people at war memorials ... Shouts and gestures of motorists ... Anthropology of football pools ... Beards, armpits, eyebrows ... Female taboos about eating".
The letter announced the founding of Mass-Observation, an organisation that aimed to investigate daily life in modern Britain in the same way as anthropologists were studying remote, tribal societies. It soon acquired an enthusiastic army of lowly paid or unpaid researchers. They interviewed people in the street, wrote down conversations overheard in pubs, factories and public toilets, and observed people carrying out ordinary activities such as smoking, drinking and dancing. Baffled journalists dismissed these quotidian researchers as "busy-bodies", "snoopers" and "psycho-anthropologic nosy-parkers". The NS's critic joked that the typical mass-observer must have "elephant ears, a loping walk and a permanent sore eye from looking through keyholes".
But there was a point to all this nosiness. Mass-Observation wanted to plot "weather-maps of public feeling", to make ordinary citizens' lives and thoughts better known to the people who governed them. It was less than a decade since every adult over 21 had won the vote, and there were few systematic attempts by either politicians or the press to find out the views of electors. Ordinary people were rarely seen or heard on film or radio: the newsreels did not bother with vox pops, and Lord Reith's BBC was staunchly upper-middle-class and dinner-suited. Mass-Observation was annoyed by the lazy assumptions about "the man in the street" by this media/political elite--"a tiny group, with different habits of mind, ways of life, from those millions they are catering for".
Mass-Observation produced some fascinatingly quirky domestic anthropology, but never quite lived up to these ambitious political aims. It churned out millions of words on countless subjects, from the contents of sweet-shop windows to the way that smokers held their cigarettes--far more than it could ever get round to collating, never mind interpreting. After the Second World War, the project petered out as its volunteers dispersed and its founders moved on to other projects.
By then, academic sociology had taken over some of the same territory. Compared to the more rigorous sampling techniques of social science, Mass-Observation's statistical obsessions--using stopwatches to time people drinking pints in pubs, say, or working out the percentage of men wearing caps on a Sunday--seemed somewhat lacking in scholarly rigour. The general democratisation of cultural life after the war also made it more awkward to look at people anthropologically. Harrisson's stated aim of applying anthropological methods to the study of "the cannibals of Lancashire, the head-hunters of Stepney" now carried a whiff of Old Harrovian hauteur. Standing in public toilets to make field notes takes a certain kind of self-assurance; and it would not survive the scrutiny of an academic ethics committee today.
But the fizzling out of Mass-Observation after the war was more than an academic question. It is also a story about changing understandings of British politics and culture, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. After the war, as daily life became more comfortable and less politically contentious, non-academic social research shifted away from anthropological observation towards the narrower analysis of consumer choice. …