Seven Lives from Mass Observation: ordinary people share personal history | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 26.01.2018
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Seven Lives from Mass Observation: ordinary people share personal history

Imagine confessing your feelings and thoughts to an anonymous archive like Mass Observation in the UK. It's unlike anything in the digital world and can provide real insights into British society, says James Hinton.

DW: What is the mass observation movement? How did it start and what is it now?

James Hinton: It was established in 1937 by two young men — Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge — an anthropologist and a poet. They wanted to find out what ordinary people thought because they didn't trust what the press reported as being public opinion. It thrived during the late thirties and 1940s and produced a huge archive of material by ordinary people, both in response to regular, open-ended questionnaires — they call them "directives" — and diaries people wrote during the war. So there's a massive archive which is fundamental really for the social history of Britain during the late 1930s and 40s.

And now it's in a second phase…

That's right. It died in 1949. The archive was deposited at Sussex University and the people in charge of the archive at the beginning of the 1980s thought, "Well, let's try and revive it."

What they did was to ask people to volunteer to write three of four times a year in response to an open-ended questionnaire, or directive, as they continued to call it. Since 1981, something like 3,000 people have at one time or another participated as volunteers. It's called Mass Observation, but the name has always been misleading. It's not people observing the masses, it's ordinary people writing about themselves — that's the richness of the archive.

I like the way the stories throw up grey areas in society — as opposed to what might otherwise be a black and white view of history and the social sciences. It's a different shade on the present and future, too. But I wonder, from your perspective, how reliable the stories are for people trying to get a handle on the way people have lived and live now.

As stories of individuals I think they are more or less 100 percent reliable in the sense that the people who volunteer to do this are doing it partly because they like writing, but mainly because they want to leave a record of what — and I always put it in quotes — "ordinary people" were doing and thinking.

The people I have written about are people who wrote over many years, 20 or 30 years, so what you're getting really is biographical writing by individuals who are writing anonymously and not for publication. They have no reason to leave stuff out and no reason to tell untruths. Of course, none of us tells all of the truth all of the time, we don't even know what it is, but they are being as honest as they can.

So as stories of individuals it is completely reliable. As representative stories … well, that's another question, because clearly the mass observers are not representative. They are volunteers, they come from many different areas of society — regionally, professionally, and so on.

I'm also interested in the psychology of the people. Some of the writers come to Mass Observation late in their lives, and I wonder whether they feel they have a particular record to set straight. Say, those who turned to the right wing of politics, for instance. Or do they fear that they as ordinary people may have been overlooked? So the housewife of the banker or the working class lorry driver — while their contributions are anonymous, maybe they don't want their stories or lives to be forgotten? They want to be heard.

Absolutely. Lots of them would like to be published. They write. The organizers of Mass Observation ask almost every question you can think of, some very good questions, including "What are your fantasies?" — and a lot of people say, "Oh, I'd love to be published." And this is second best to being published. They are making their mark and they know that future historians are going to make use of them. So they will figure in the historical record. That's a strong motivation.

So future historians will make use of them but what about people trying to get a hold of the now? Would analysts profit in the present if they delved into the archives to work out how people are thinking and how they got to thinking the way they do now?

Yes. For me the best example of that is someone who really throws a lot of light on the now, on the Brexit now: Bob, the lorry driver [one of the Mass Observation writers in Hinton's book "Seven Lives from Mass Observation"]. His story really tells you the kinds of emotional attachments that people have to hostility to the EU.

I argue with Bob — we got to know each other, we had an email correspondence at the time. His story I think is a combination of 1970s hostility to the EU as a capitalist plot, plus a British insular patriotism very much based on the experience of the Second World War. And the fact that during the Second World War working class people in Britain got respect. And Bob Rush grew up with that idea, and it was institutionalized in the [Clement] Attlee government that working class people came into their own. It was their Britain, the National Health Service and so on. And for Bob that is inextricably linked in his head with hostility to the EU.

James Hinton, Professor Emeritus (Privat)

James Hinton has studied the lives of "ordinary" people through the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University

You say that one of the limitations of the stories or lives in Mass Observation is that they don't necessarily reveal how other people saw the writers. And to quote one of your lines: "Our sense of self is shaped and confirmed through the eyes of others." At the same time you are looking at them now, and have done for many years, and you say you're learning about your own life and times. There is a similar kind of voluntary mass observation in our public, digital lives as well. Do you think it will be worth as much as the Mass Observation stories?

The people running the archive wonder whether it's still relevant in these digital days. Given that people now blog and all the rest of it, does it make sense to keep Mass Observation going? And the answer is, "Well, they keep getting volunteers who want to do it," so it is something different from doing a blog.

They write to the archive, and, yes, a lot of it is confessional about distressing stuff in their lives. When I'm on a train and a person is talking about the problems in their love life on the phone in the seat in front of me, it's a world I don't understand. I don't understand how the private can be put out there in public like that. It's as though the person is sitting in some kind of cocoon and doesn't realize that the people around them are listening, intrigued by the conversation about their love life!

And the big problem with the digital stuff is that there's far too much of it. How will one ever analyze it? You can only imagine it being analyzed by an artificial intelligence that can sort it out, and again, I'm quite sure there will be analyses of "digital selves," conducted with the aid of artificial intelligence. That would be a genre of sociological or historical research that I could not begin to understand! But no doubt: things change and the way we do things change.

James Hinton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick, UK. He has published widely on the social history of twentieth-century Britain, including his book, "Seven Lives from Mass Observation - Britain in the Late 20th Century" (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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