Sam, Caroline, Janet, Stella, Len, Helen and Bob

Susan Pedersen

  • Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late 20th Century by James Hinton
    Oxford, 207 pp, £25.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 878713 6

Mass Observation was the brainchild of the charismatic ornithologist turned anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the Marxist poet Charles Madge and (briefly) the experimental filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. It attempted to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ by ‘observing’ ordinary Britons as they went about their ordinary lives – and by enlisting those same people as diarists and commentators. In the decade or so after its foundation in 1937 ‘MO’ produced more than a dozen books and a host of commissioned reports on subjects ranging from George VI’s coronation to the Munich crisis, from war work to religious belief. Buffeted by financial troubles and leadership crises (Madge broke with MO in 1940; Harrisson was conscripted in 1942 and sent to Borneo in 1944), by the late 1940s the organisation was in decline, although Harrisson could usually be relied on to generate a project when he blew into town. In 1949, by now mostly dependent on advertising and company contracts, MO became a market research firm. The mass of material it had collected went into storage, and then in 1969 was transferred to the University of Sussex. In 1975, the Mass Observation Archive opened to researchers.

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