William Cook at BBC Arts: “Eighty years ago, on 30th January 1937, the New Statesman published a letter which launched the largest (and strangest) writers’ group in British literary history.
An anthropologist called Tom Harrisson, a journalist called Charles Madge and a filmmaker called Humphrey Jennings wrote to the magazine asking for volunteers to take part in a new project called Mass Observation. Over a thousand readers responded, offering their services. Remarkably, this ‘scientific study of human social behaviour’ is still going strong today.
Mass Observation was the product of a growing interest in the social sciences, and a growing belief that the mass media wasn’t accurately reflecting the lives of so-called ordinary people. Instead of entrusting news gathering to jobbing journalists, who were under pressure to provide the stories their editors and proprietors wanted, Mass Observation recruited a secret army of amateur reporters, to track the habits and opinions of ‘the man in the street.’
Ironically, the three founders of this egalitarian movement were all extremely well-to-do. They’d all been to public schools and Oxbridge, but this was the ‘Age of Anxiety’, when capitalism was in chaos and dangerous demagogues were on the rise (plus ça change…).
For these idealistic public schoolboys, socialism was the answer, and Mass Observation was the future. By finding out what ‘ordinary’ folk were really doing, and really thinking, they would forge a new society, more attuned to the needs of the common man.
Mass Observation selected 500 citizen journalists, and gave them regular ‘directives’ to report back on virtually every aspect of their daily lives. They were guaranteed anonymity, which gave them enormous freedom. People opened up about themselves (and their peers) to an unprecedented degree.
Even though they were all unpaid, correspondents devoted a great deal of time to this endeavour – writing at great length, in great detail, over many years. As well as its academic value, Mass Observation proved that autobiography is not the sole preserve of the professional writer. For all of us, the urge to record and reflect upon our lives is a basic human need.
The Second World War was the perfect forum for this vast collective enterprise. Mass Observation became a national diary of life on the home front. For historians, the value of such uncensored revelations is enormous. These intimate accounts of air raids and rationing are far more revealing and evocative than the jolly state-sanctioned reportage of the war years.
After the war, Mass Observation became more commercial, supplying data for market research, and during the 1960s this extraordinary experiment gradually wound down. It was rescued from extinction by the historian Asa Briggs….
The founders of Mass Observation were horrified by what they called “the revival of racial superstition.” Hitler, Franco and Mussolini were in the forefront of their minds. “We are all in danger of extinction from such outbursts of atavism,” they wrote, in 1937. “We look to science to help us, only to find that science is too busy forging new weapons of mass destruction.”
For its founders, Mass Observation was a new science which would build a better future. For its countless correspondents, however, it became something more than that – not merely a social science, but a communal work of art….(More)”.