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Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires. They also paid investigators to record people's conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.
The early prime movers behind Mass Observation were anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and the film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Collaborators included the critic William Empson, the photographer Humphrey Spender, the collagist Julian Trevelyan, and the painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell.
They developed a large number of techniques that laid the foundations of market research
The original phase ended after criticism from academics that such subjective work lacked validity. Changes in attitudes led to its relaunch in 1981. Today Mass-Observation continues to collect the thoughts of its panel of writers through regular questionnaires (known as directives) and is used by students, academics, media researchers and the public for its unique collection of material on everyday life in Britain.
A number of publications are also available from the University. The following selection of titles also gives some idea of the scope of Mass-Observation's work:
- Attitudes to AIDS
- Bolton Working Class Life
- Children's Millennium Diaries
- Everyday use of social relaxants and stimulants
- Gender and Nationhood. Britain in the Falklands War
- Health, sickness and the work ethic
- Looking at Europe: pointers to some British attitudes
- Researching women's lives: notes from visits to East Central Europe
- Mass-Observation: des 'capsules' de vie quotidienne
- One Day in the Life of Television
- Sex surveyed, 1949-1994 - The actual Mass Observation survey was called Little Kinsey, the results were published in a book by Liz Stanley of the above name.
- The Pub and the People
- Weeping in the Cinema in 1950
In 2004 Our Hidden Lives, an edited selection of the diaries kept by five of these observers and diarists during the post-war period was published.
- Simon Garfield, Our Hidden Lives, 2005 paperback edition from Ebury Press: ISBN 0-09-189733-5.
- Hubble, Nick. Mass-Observation and Everyday Life. Houndmills-Basinstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006. ISBN 1-4039-3555-6.
A history of the Mass Observation movement from a former Research Fellow at the Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex, UK (from back cover)
- University of Sussex Mass-Observation site
- Caleb Crain. "Surveillance society: The Mass-Observation movement and the meaning of everyday life.". The New Yorker. 11 September 2006.
- Humphrey Spender's Worktown Images on Bolton Museums and Art Gallery website
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