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Albert Mingelgrün
Beatrice Barbalato

Les patrimoines autobiographiques et la logique de l'archivage

Observing Britain by Mass Observation

Fiona Courage


Mass observation a été fondée en 1937 comme un organisme de recherche sociale qui visait à enregistrer la vie quotidienne et celle de l'opinion en Grande-Bretagne en utilisant des techniques d'enquête ethnographique et en recrutant un large panel de rédacteurs bénévoles pour animer un journal et gérer des questionnaires qualitatifs concernant le plus grand nombre possible d'aspects de la vie dans le pays. Le projet s'est poursuivi pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale jusqu'aux débuts des années cinquante. Les archives du matériel recueilli ont été confiées à l'Université du Sussex en 1970 et mises depuis à la disposition de la recherche. En 1981, une nouvelle phase de Mass Observation s'est ouverte lorsqu'un nouveau panel de bénévoles a été recruté pour traiter de questionnaires relatifs cette fois à la fin du XXe siècle au Royaume-Uni: plus de 4000 personnes ont ainsi participé et participent à l'entreprise depuis 1981. Le présent document décrit les méthodes utilisées par Mass Observation durant les deux grandes phases de ses opérations et tente de situer son rôle dans la capture de vie et l'écriture autobiographique de celle-ci.

In late 1936, a social survey organization called Mass Observation was founded with the aim of creating an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ in which the British people would contribute to a study of their own lives through survey, life writing and ethnographic style observation and investigation. This project went on to document the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain throughout the Second World War and into the years of austerity that followed. The material collected by Mass Observation in this time, was brought to the University of Sussex in 1970, and was the trigger for restarting the concept of the Mass Observation in 1981 when a new panel of volunteer writers was recruited to give in depth and subjective responses to questionnaires about their opinions, beliefs and experiences of daily life in Britain. The Mass Observation Project has continued throughout the 1980s, 90s and 2000s and its products are housed with the original organisation’s collection as part of the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. This paper will look at the methodology of both collecting, archiving and disseminating this vast archive of ephemera, life writing and anthropological observation. It will also examine the ethical and archival considerations that come into play when an archive seeks to create its own materials.

Texte intégral

1. Introduction

1Mass Observation is a British a social research project that has specialised in recording everyday life in the United Kingdom over six decades. The Archive of Mass Observation, which is now housed in the Special Collections Department of the University of Sussex Library, largely comprises written documents although it also includes of photographs and a large amount of ephemera amongst its holdings. The unique strand that runs through the collection is that it specialises in contemporaneous autobiography, and not the memoir or oral history material that is usually found in archival collections that specialise in the ‘everyday’. Mass Observation was originally founded in 1937 and was active throughout World War Two and in the years following armistice in 1945. From the late 1940s, Mass Observation began to move into commercial market research and by the early 1950s the social research element of the project was no longer active. The archive of material amassed throughout the 1930s and 40s came to the University of Sussex in 1970 and was the trigger for a revival of Mass Observation in 1981, concentrating on the autobiographical writing elements of the original methodology. The project has continued over the past 30 years and hopefully will do so for many more to come.

2This paper will initially look at the methodology and materials of the original project, and will then go on to concentrate on the current Mass Observation Project and its format.

2. Foundation & the original Mass Observation project

3Mass Observation was originally founded in 1937 by Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist recently returned from fieldwork in Malekula, Charles Madge, a journalist and poet, and Humphrey Jennings, an artist and documentary film maker. They wanted to study the British people at a time of social and economic upheaval. King Edward VIII had abdicated in late 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson leaving his brother George VI to ascend the throne in May 1937. Economic depression was hitting ordinary people throughout the country, and of course the international situation was grave in outlook with the threat of world war looking increasingly likely.

  • 2 Tom HARRISSON, Humphrey JENNINGS & Charles MADGE, «Anthropology at Home» in New Statesman and Natio (...)

4It was against this backdrop that Harrisson, Madge and Jennings set up Mass Observation. One of their leading objectives was to gauge the gulf between public opinion and what was often attributed to public opinion in the popular press of the time. In order to collect this evidence they set out to record the experiences, lives, opinions and beliefs of ordinary people throughout Britain at that time. The British people would be recruited to contribute to a study of their own lives thereby creating what Mass Observation described as ‘an anthology of ourselves’. In 1937, the founders stated that Mass Observation had «not set out in quest of the truth or facts for their own sake, or for the sake of an intellectual minority, but aims at exposing them in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed»2.

5Mass Observation used two approaches to collecting its data: it employed a team of investigators to use ethnographic survey techniques whilst alongside this, a national panel of volunteer writers was recruited from around Britain to create a mass record of their daily lives.

3. Ethnographic work

6The team of investigators were employed to use ethnographic and traditional survey techniques to observe and record life around them in various locations and scenarios. The team investigated themes as diverse as politics and leisure, smoking and films. Each theme was investigated through a series of surveys, observational activities and research work that included door to door surveys; standing in streets and counting how many people walked passed a shop as opposed to entering into it; visiting all the cafes in a locality and describing their décor and noting down overheard conversations. Much of their work was concerned with assessing the morale of the population, particularly in the heaviest days of bombing during Word War Two. But their remit was much wider than simply recording morale – their work reflected events and current affairs that effected national life alongside the minutiae of experience that effected individual lives. This work was gathered in the course of studying specified themes of which material for over 80 separate topics survive in the Archive today. These themes ranged from smoking and drinking to politics and current affairs. The course of World War Two was documented, from the effect of rationing and bombing through to opinions and observation on the armed forces and demobilisation.

7Specific examples of the kind of material collected include a study on dance halls in the London area. An investigator visited various dancehalls and interviewed both the owners and the clientele. They talked to the band about what music was most popular; they collected ephemera such as tickets and programmes. They also wrote up detailed accounts on the décor and layout of the dancehall, the way people danced, what they wore, accounts of the conversations that were overheard and so forth. There is even a description of how male dancers held their partners in 1938. Some investigators went undercover, including one young woman who spent a year working in an ammunitions factory during Word War Two reporting back to Mass Observation on the lives, activities and opinions of the female workforce, unbeknownst to those she was working alongside. Her experiences and observations were published in a book entitled War Factory. The book provides a fascinating study of how women adapted to the new roles in which they found themselves in order to support the war effort and sustain industries in which the majority of the traditional male workforce had been conscripted into the armed forces. Reflecting the original objectives stated by the founders of Mass Observation, the aim of such publications as War Factory was to provide a forum in which the ‘truth or facts’ gathered could indeed be exposed to observers «in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed».

4. National Panel of writers

  • 3 T. HARRISSON, Humphrey JENNINGS & Charles MADGE, «Anthropology at home», op. cit., p. 30.
  • 4 T. HARRISSON, Living through the Blitz, London, Collins 1976.

8The National panel of volunteer writers was a unique experiment in encouraging people from all over Britain to record their feelings and experiences about the lives they lived, or as Mass Observation put it in 1937, «They will be the meteorological stations from whose reports a weather-map of popular feeling can be compiled»3. Over 3000 people participated in the project at some point between 1937 and 1955 either sending in diaries recording their daily lives, or responding to questionnaires on subjects nominated by Mass Observation, relating to all aspects of life in Britain. These questionnaires took the form of open ended surveys designed to illicit candid, detailed and subjective responses on a wide range of subjects including smoking and reading habits, the War situation, adultery, food rationing and politics. All contributors were promised anonymity in terms of any of their writing that might be published. In a later publication Harrisson explains how anonymity was an important factor in allowing participants to be open and candid in their responses to Mass Observation without fear of reprisal or consequence from other agencies4. As a result, there are many instances within the diaries and questionnaire responses, in which the traditional view of British opinion of the time can be challenged. A particular example is the ‘Blitz spirit’ concept, which features in many wartime and post war films, in which the characters are seen to be knuckling down under the pressures of war with a practical and patriotic ruddy faced cheerfulness. Whilst the diaries record much admirable activity in the face of adversity, they also record the hardship and suffering, the low morale and for some, the desire for the war to end whoever the victor may be. The very act of autobiography during this period seems to have been a therapeutic exercise for many, who record that they put a happy face on in public, but their true feelings are revealed to the diary. One such example, is from the diarist Nella Last who wrote for Mass Observation for over 30 years. Here Nella describes her reaction to the announcement of the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939:

  • 5 Nella LAST, Diary for 3 September 1939, Mass Observation Archive.

I’m a self reliant kind of person, but today I’ve longed for a close woman friend – for the first time in my life. When I heard Mr Chamberlain’s voice, so slow and solemn, I seemed to see Southsea Prom the July before the last crisis. The Fleet came into Portsmouth from Weymouth and there were hundreds of extra ratings walking up and down. There was a sameness about them that was not due to their clothes alone, and it puzzled me. It was the look on their faces – a slightly brooding, faraway look. They all had it – even the jolly-looking boys – and I felt I wanted to rush up and ask them what they could see that I could not. And now I know.
The wind got up and brought rain, but on the Walney shore men and boys worked filling sand-bags. I could tell by the dazed look on many faces that I had not been alone in my belief that ‘something’ would turn up to prevent war. The boys brought a friend in and insisted on me joining in a game, but I could not keep it up. I’ve tried deep breathing, relaxing, knitting and more aspirins than I can remember, but all I can see are those boys and their look of ‘beyond’

5. Transfer to Sussex & launch of Mass Observation Project

  • 6 Dorothy SHERIDAN, Brian STREET & David BLOOME, Writing Mass Observation and literary practices, Cha (...)

9The Archive of material was brought to the University of Sussex in 1970 to be made available to researchers as a public access archive. Alongside the potential for studying life and opinion during the years around World War Two, the presence of the Archive also encouraged the idea of collecting similar material to document the present day. I mentioned earlier that one of the influencing factors in the foundation of the original Mass Observation surveys in 1937 was the abdication and accession of kings; similarly events with Royal significance seem to have triggered the relaunch of Mass Observation in the late 1970s and 1980s. Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 25th Jubilee in 1977, and a Mass Observation inspired project was launched in which ordinary people were invited to record their feelings towards or participation in the Jubilee celebrations6. This one off project acted as a stimulus for a larger scale project in 1981, headed by an anthropologist at the University of Sussex, Professor David Pocock. Again, a royal event triggered the questionnaire, the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981, and following a series of letters to national newspapers inviting participation, 161 members of the pubic responded to Mass Observation’s first survey questionnaire in nearly 30 years. The numbers of respondents steadily rose in the following years peaking at around 1000 in 1988; today the number stands at around 500 with over 4000 individuals having been part of the Project at some point since 1981.

6. The Directives

10Since the first questionnaire sent out in 1981, over 90 questions have been sent out-three themes to each questionnaires, sent out three times each year. In other words over 90 questionnaires have been mailed out over the last 30 years and nearly 300 themes covered. Occasionally specials will be issued to reflect sudden and dramatic events such as the 9/11 attacks in New York or the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The themes are designed to reflect life in the late 20th and early 21 century world: current affairs and world events are asked about alongside more personal and introspective subjects. For example in Spring 1992 panel members were asked about Personal Hygiene, the pace of life and the British General Elections whilst in Winter 2008 they responded to questions on the World Financial Crisis, Global poverty and the ups and downs of friendship. At intervals throughout the Project participants have been asked to keep day diaries recording everything they do from waking to sleeping on a certain day. Many of the themes have been designed to reflect events in the news, others suggested by Mass Observation staff or the correspondents themselves, and many designed in collaboration with academic researchers who are looking to extend their field of research data to the returns from the Project.

11The questionnaires are mailed out three times a year: Spring, Summer and Autumn, either via email attachment or in hardcopy and responses start returning within a week or so. The responses are checked onto a database, and briefly scanned through to check there are no identifying mentions, and then placed into files and archive boxes awaiting the opening of access. Themes are generally available for research 3 months from the date the questionnaire is issued.

12The material that is returned ranges from a few lines to many pages. Some participants handwrite whilst others send responses by email attachment. Some draw cartoons or add clippings form newspapers, a few who are unable to write or type, send audio responses.

7. Who is writing ?

13The Project has attracted people from all walks of life in Britain over the last 30 years, some participating for one or two directives whilst others have written for nearly 30 years.

14When people volunteer they are asked to provide a self portrait for our closed records and some biographical details available to researchers such as age and occupation. The Project has never asked for details of ethnicity, nor sought to classify socioeconomic status or the participants. Each participant is given a unique alphanumeric identifier which is used in all submissions and researchers have no access to names or addresses of participants. As I mentioned earlier, anonymity was important to the original Mass Observation surveys as the founders believed that it would allow participants to be open and candid in their responses without fear of reprisal or consequence. This remains important to the current Project particularly when seeking candid views of personal experiences on subjects such as violence in the home, sex or menstruation. Along with the responses themselves, researchers who visit the Archive are able to access limited biographical information on each individual writer.

15It is a voluntary project, and by its nature attracts only those willing and able to contribute to a written collection. This makes it difficult to be inclusive for those that are illiterate or for whom English is not their first language. Also in the age of social networking and Web 2.0, Mass Observation faces challenges in attracting and maintaining volunteer writers when there is a wealth of other ways to record personal daily life.

  • 7 D. SHERIDAN, The Mass Observation Project: background to material collected since 1981 available in (...)

16Accordingly the project cannot claim to provide a cross section representative of British society in 21st century. Former Director of the Mass Observation Archive, Professor Dorothy Sheridan, has suggested that the Project should be understood as a writing project rather than a survey, sharing many attributes with oral history projects and other life story initiatives with a unique focus on the present day rather than concentration on memoir7.

17Other than the original call for volunteers in 1981 through letters to popular newspapers, there has never been any direct advertising for recruitment. Publicity for the project has depended on attracting interest from the press and media through activities and publications. Since 1998 Mass Observation has also had its own website which is used to attract volunteers to the project. The publication of books relating to Mass Observation also attract waves of new volunteers, however by the nature of the publications and their audiences, these volunteers often mirror the current panel demographic.

18The Project often attracts criticism (mainly from academic researchers) that the panel is not representative enough of modern day Britain. Over the years there has been a slide towards the natural attraction of older women to contribute, and various attempts have been made to redress this. In the 1980s there was a drive to recruit more males by sending appeal letters to publications that had a mostly male readership. In the late 1990s, women over the age of 50 were not added to the mailing list. Most recently in 2004 an acceptance criteria was introduced, in the Project’s first significant attempt to recruit writers from areas of the population who were previously under represented: namely males, those aged under 45s and those not living in the South East. Correspondents are accepted onto the panel if they are able to meet two of these criteria. The result of the application of these criteria has been to create a panel that is roughly representative of the regions in the UK, and of ages, although women still slightly outnumber men. Likewise, the makeup of the panel does not necessarily reflect the profile of those who actually send in contributions to the Project. Responses rates normally range between 50% and 60% per directive.

19Mass Observation does not seek to establish social classification or ethnic background for its contributors, but it is likely that ethnic minorities are under represented, and there seems to be a higher representation of urban dwellers. We leave it to researchers using the material to develop their own system of establishing social class from the responses that they read through.

20Another criticism sometimes levied at the Project is the number of contributors. Students often struggle to extrapolate the experiences of British Society as a whole from responses from just 300 people. This serves as an example of the conflict between the relative ease with which a student encounters quantative analysis in comparison to the more unfamiliar, subjective and labour intensive needs of qualitative analysis. By applying the quantative requirement for a corpus of material, a student may ignore the sheer volume of material available in just 300 replies which amount to anything from 500 and 1500 pages of writing depending on the subject. When looking at a subject such as memories of child hood reading, an oral history study may undertake 10 or 20 interviews. The Mass Observation Project questionnaires on these themes resulted in 185 in depth responses or similarly in depth, autobiographical material.

21The ‘panel’ nature of the contributors means that some respond to only one or two directives, whilst many will respond to each directive sent over a period of years, in some cases decades. About 80 writers have contributed from 1981 into the 2000s allowing significant longitudinal research potential. By revisiting questionnaire themes over the years, such as general elections, death and relationships researchers can track the changing opinions and experiences of individual writers alongside spotting any general trends. The material can be used to support or critique other established means of survey, for example a researcher who examined the panels’ very personal responses to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 in comparison to the public opinion perceived in the mass media outpourings of the days and weeks following her death.

  • 8 T. HARRISSON & Ch. MADGE, Mass Observation, London, op. cit., p. 34.

22The Mass Observation Archive does not seek to analyse any of the responses – that is for researchers to undertake. We simply request, receive, collate and archive the responses and make them available to anyone who wishes to see them. Although there has been a small amount of analysis into the project methodology itself, for example looking at patterns of responses or panel composition, there is still much to be done in this area. When Mass Observation first launched itself in 1937, it stated that its first concern was to collect data, not to interpret them but to leave them “open to any scientist to make use of these data and to produce his interpretation”8. For Mass Observation, the value lay in being able to compare different interpretations of the same data to indicate different points of view.

8. Other projects

23By its nature the Mass Observation Project cannot easily reach out to all areas of British Society, and whilst we acknowledge that this is not necessarily the Project to do this with, several off shoot projects have recently been embarked upon to encourage involvement from a broader spectrum of society. Two examples of these are the May 12th Day Diaries, and the Mass Observation Communities Online project.

24May 12 was a significant date for the original Mass Observation Project. It was the day that George VI was crowned and also the first large scale coordinated survey activity undertaken by Mass Observation in 1937. A montage of the work done on this day was published in Mass Observation’s first publication, May Twelfth. To coincide with other Mass Observation related events happening in May 2010, a call was issued for members of the general public to email in day diaries detailing their activities on May 12th. Despite a very small amount of publicity, primarily through our website, over 250 responses came in from all around the country. The success of this has encouraged us to repeat the exercise on an annual basis, with over 500 diaries being received in 2011, providing a snap shot of life in Britain each year. The benefits of soliciting material in this way are that we hope to be able to provide online access to the responses in due course as well as broadening the opportunity for people to take part in a no commitment, short term activity.

25Mass Observation Communities Online is another project designed to broaden the scope of Mass Observation in the 21st century. We received funding from the Joint Information Systems Committee for a six month project in 2010. The objective was to reuse digital images of the original Mass Observation surveys to inspire community groups around the country to submit their own Mass Observation style recordings of their community’s activities. Individuals were able to register online, and then use Wufoo technology to write and upload their diaries, questionnaire responses and observations. Some groups designed their own questionnaires, whilst others used the original Mass Observation Directives. The groups that were involved included members of the homeless community, local history societies, student groups and immigrant communities, as well as many individuals who had no affinity with any of the Community groups, but simply wanted to contribute to this online community of observations. The diaries and questionnaires that were mounted on the site are open access and available for anyone to look at, or use in a non commercial, non derivative way. In this way not only has Mass Observation extended its profile of contribution and accessibility to these contributions, but we have also provided community groups with an arena for their own activities to be archived in a visible way. It is planned to extend this project to enable it to continue receiving contributions from specific groups within the community, or for general events such as the May 12th exercise.

9. Conclusion

  • 9 T. HARRISSON & Ch. MADGE, First year’s work, London, Lindsay Drummond, 1937, p. 31.

26From its inception in 1937, Mass Observation has valued the concept of using autobiographical recording of the everyday to give an «extraordinary picture of England, though the material they report is completely ordinary»9. The approach of using life story to form the basis of a scientific study may have changed over the decades, but the material that has been collected in this way serves to provide research data for many disciplines. The gathering of such a vast amount of qualitative life story data in one place, with the potential for longitudinal study spanning decades at a time, provides an unparalleled resource for those researching life story, life writing and autobiography. In the age of the internet the need for a current day organisation such as Mass Observation has been questioned, with social networking and blogs having the potential to take its place in the recording of the everyday life of everyday people. Nevertheless, people continue to join the Project, seeking to be part of a larger community of research data, and looking for a permanent and internationally recognised repository for their contributions that will join a legacy of over 70 years of observational activity.


2 Tom HARRISSON, Humphrey JENNINGS & Charles MADGE, «Anthropology at Home» in New Statesman and Nation, 30 January 1937, p. 155.

3 T. HARRISSON, Humphrey JENNINGS & Charles MADGE, «Anthropology at home», op. cit., p. 30.

4 T. HARRISSON, Living through the Blitz, London, Collins 1976.

5 Nella LAST, Diary for 3 September 1939, Mass Observation Archive.

6 Dorothy SHERIDAN, Brian STREET & David BLOOME, Writing Mass Observation and literary practices, Chapter 2, London, Hampton Press, 2000.

7 D. SHERIDAN, The Mass Observation Project: background to material collected since 1981 available in the University of Sussex Library, Special Collections reading room, 2009.

8 T. HARRISSON & Ch. MADGE, Mass Observation, London, op. cit., p. 34.

9 T. HARRISSON & Ch. MADGE, First year’s work, London, Lindsay Drummond, 1937, p. 31.


Fiona Courage est responsable des collections spéciales de l'Université de Sussex et conservatrice des Archives Mass Observation gérées par les soins de l'Université. Elle travaille dans les Collections Spéciales depuis 2000 et s'intéresse particulièrement à l'enseignement et à l'accès à ces Collections Spéciales. Elle a reçu un prix d'excellence de l'Université du Sussex en 2009 et une bourse d'enseignement en 2010. (

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2012

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