We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Mass-Observation (act. 1937–1949) was founded in 1937 to document popular life and belief in ways that would contribute to the democratization of sociological knowledge. Launched around the slogan ‘anthropology at home’, Mass-Observation initially provided a loose umbrella for several rather disparate projects. It would probably have disintegrated had it not been for the war, which gave focus and impetus, enabling Mass-Observation to develop a more coherent programme and practice.

Informality and lack of record keeping about its own workings make it difficult to reconstruct the organization's history. Of its founders, Charles Madge, already an established poet, and his circle of literary and artistic friends, including Humphrey Jennings and David Gascoyne, were initially looking for a ‘poetry of the people’, inspired by an inchoate mixture of Marx, Freud, and surrealism ‘on the fault line between science and art, objectivity and subjectivity, rationalism and irrationalism’ (Highmore, 77). The abdication crisis in December 1936, and the gulf between media representations and popular attitudes that Madge observed as a Daily Mirror reporter, triggered a move to recruit ordinary people to send in reports of their mundane activities one day each month. In January 1937 Tom Harrisson made contact with Madge's group, bringing with him a quite different set of skills, interests, and acquaintances.

Already well on the way to becoming a public intellectual, Harrisson, a self-publicist of genius, was familiar to a wide audience through print and radio journalism. A schoolboy ornithologist, he had been an undergraduate member of several scientific expeditions. By the time his flamboyantly unacademic anthropological account of life in two Melanesian islands was published as Savage Civilisation by Gollancz in January 1937 Harrisson had already initiated a local survey of the Lancashire industrial town Bolton inspired by the Lynds' 1929 study of a mid-western American community, Middletown. It was characteristic of the pre-war Mass-Observation that in their joint manifesto, published in June 1937, Madge and Harrisson found it necessary to register profound differences about the ultimate purpose of the organization. Madge advocated a modest empiricism, while Harrisson, glimpsing the political possibilities of Mass-Observation, hoped it would become a catalyst of ‘a new synthesis’ beyond the ‘present miserable conflicts of dogmatic faiths’ (Madge and Harrisson, Mass-Observation, 47).

Until the Munich crisis Harrisson ran the local survey work from a run-down house in Bolton (dubbed Worktown), while Madge organized the national panel from his home in Blackheath. There was little co-ordination between the two efforts. Run on a shoestring and staffed by underpaid full-timers, local volunteers (including Bill Naughton, a Co-operative Society coalman who later became a writer of working-class autobiography and fiction), occasional literary and artistic visitors from London—William Empson, Julian Trevelyan, William Coldstream, and the photographer Humphrey Spender—and Oxbridge students on vacation, notably Woodrow Wyatt and Kenneth Allott, the Worktown project amassed some 40,000 pages of material largely based on observing working-class behaviour in public spaces in Bolton and on holiday in Blackpool. Two leading Lancashire industrialists, Sir Ernest Simon and Sir Thomas Barlow, provided much of the money, while advances from the socialist publisher Victor Gollancz helped to keep the project afloat, although in the end only one of the four projected books was published, The Pub and the People (1943), written up by the communist novelist John Sommerfield (1908–1991), who had directed much of the research.

In Worktown the stress was on the observation of behaviour, anywhere from the funeral parlour to the dance floor, rather than on soliciting the views of those being observed: ‘looking, listening, observing, without asking any questions’ (Harrisson, cited in Jeffery, 26) . Harrisson showed, at first, little interest in Madge's recruitment of a national panel under instruction to observe their own behaviour as well as the world around them, and he was dismissive of the first fruit of this work, May 12th Mass-Observation Day Surveys, edited by Madge and Humphrey Jennings, an exercise in surreal juxtaposition of official and popular versions of the 1937 coronation day of George VI. After this Jennings, to Harrisson's relief, had little to do with Mass-Observation, though it was to be in his wartime documentary films that the project of a ‘poetry of the people’ was most fully realized.

From the outset Mass-Observation collected more material than it could analyse. By the end of the first year the monthly day surveys had amassed over two million words from nearly 600 individuals, most of them recruited via the New Statesman, and Madge, lacking the staff to analyse this torrent of material, ran down the day surveys in favour of ‘directives’ designed to probe particular issues. During the Munich crisis Harrisson joined Madge in London, deploying a team of volunteers to monitor public reactions and exposing a gulf, comparable to that which had triggered the formation of Mass-Observation in the abdication crisis two years earlier, between press representations of public opinion (supportive of Chamberlain) and the more critical ‘private opinion’ of ordinary people. Their findings were published in January 1939 in a best-selling Penguin Special, Britain by Mass-Observation, alongside essays on popular leisure derived from the work in Bolton and London.

After the Munich agreement Harrisson stayed on in London, and Madge took over the Bolton end, developing an inquiry into the ‘social aspects of economics’ that, in contrast to Harrisson's practices, took investigators inside working-class homes, probing habits of saving and spending. Although Madge attempted to co-ordinate the Bolton work with directives to the national panel, the middle-class composition of the latter made its responses largely irrelevant to the focus of his study. Two of the team had previous experience as social researchers: Denis Chapman, who had worked for two years in St Andrews on a project directed by Oscar Oeser, a pioneer of empirical social psychology, and Gertrude Wagner, who had worked with Marie Jahoda in Vienna and on the 1938 Pilgrim Trust report Men without Work. Madge, until then largely ignorant of sociological literature, rapidly embraced a more academic approach, paving the way for his departure from Mass-Observation in June 1940 to conduct research sponsored by Keynes into the social psychology of saving. Ten years later he was appointed as the first professor of sociology at Birmingham University.

With the outbreak of war private funding ceased to be available and Mass-Observation faced extinction. Harrisson understood immediately that wartime mobilization would need the services of the organization, but early moves to employ it were blocked by the minister of information, reluctant to antagonize the established representatives of ‘public opinion’, MPs, and the press. Eventually, at the beginning of 1940, after Mary Adams, a BBC producer and a friend of Harrisson's, had been appointed director of home intelligence, Mass-Observation was commissioned to provide regular reports on morale, although to save face on both sides the relationship was kept secret. Commissions from the Ministry of Information dried up after Adams left in April 1941, but Harrisson was able to secure contracts from the Admiralty to report on morale in the port towns, which brought in money during 1941–2 and helped for a time to protect him and other Mass-Observation workers from conscription. Mass-Observation retained its independence and continued to publish its findings in books and the press. Their reports on public reactions to the blitz told the truth in ways that their Whitehall sponsors sometimes had difficulty in justifying to ministers. There was, nevertheless, a danger (cited by Madge as one reason for his departure in 1940) that these close relationships with the state would turn the organization from its critical, democratic stance into a home-front spying organization facilitating governmental manipulation of public opinion.

To avoid this Harrisson succeeded in securing a new non-governmental source of income in the shape of a consortium of progressive advertising agencies led by Albert Everett Jones (1899–1978), which enabled the organization to go beyond what Harrisson described as the ‘little piddling problems put to us from day to day’ (Harrisson to Masel, 2 Jan 1942, Mass-Observation archive, Masel box) by Whitehall to more substantial research on industrial life, housing, demobilization, and the reluctance of women to have babies, all of which resulted in books published between 1942 and 1945. As government funds dried up from 1942 this became the organization's chief source of income. Other wartime commissions came from Harold John Blackham (b. 1903), a leading British humanist and secretary of the Ethical Union, and Leonard Harris [see under Harris, John Mortimer Green], director of a fashionable department store in Chester. Both resulted in books published in 1947.

Already before the war Mass-Observation had full-time observers working in London, notably on the West Fulham by-election of April 1938 (paid for by the Labour Party) and a 1939 project on East End antisemitism financed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. During the early war years Harrisson built up a mobile team of about fifteen full-time observers in London based in his wife's house in Holland Park, including Celia Fremlin (b. 1914), an Oxford graduate who had published a book based on working as a domestic servant in Chelsea before the war and who subsequently became a well-known writer of detective fiction; Nina Masel (1919–2004), who had joined the Mass-Observation panel as a schoolgirl and became after the war, as Nina Hibbin, film critic of the Daily Worker; and Mollie Tarrant (1911–1999), a schoolteacher before the war, who was to play a leading role in Mass-Observation after her return to the organization in 1947. John Ferraby (1914–1973), a Cambridge graduate, oversaw much of the report writing during the war. He had joined the Baha'i faith in 1941 and left Mass-Observation at the end of the war to become secretary of the Baha'i National Assembly. Author of a standard exposition of the faith, All Things Made New (1957), he was one of only four British people to be appointed ‘hands of the cause of God’, the highest position in the Baha'i faith. Richard Fitter, who had worked for Political and Economic Planning since 1936, joined Mass-Observation in July 1940 and helped to organize the mobile team until his call-up two years later. Like several of Harrisson's recruits he was also an enthusiastic ornithologist. After the war he wrote the Collins Guide to British Birds (1952) and directed the Council for Nature.

After his call-up for military service in July 1942 Harrisson handed day-to-day control to Bob (H. D.) Willcock (1913–1976), but continued his active involvement with Mass-Observation until drafted overseas two years later to organize guerrilla war against the Japanese in Borneo. Willcock, a schoolteacher before the war, ran the organization while Harrisson was abroad, eventually leaving in 1948 to join the Government Social Survey. Several other Mass-Observation staff had already made this switch, including Denis Chapman, Gertrude Wagner, and Geoffrey Thomas (d. 2002), who had worked for Madge in Bolton and was to become head of the social survey in the 1970s. The Social Survey had been started by Mary Adams in 1940 as the Wartime Social Survey to provide a quantitative check on Mass-Observation's qualitative findings, and it represented the antithesis of Mass-Observation, undertaking uncontroversial projects, using statistically reliable samples and carefully trained researchers. Harrisson, by contrast, dismissed quantification as largely irrelevant to serious opinion research, valued ‘receptive intelligence’ over scientific detachment or training in his observers, tended to play fast and loose with the rules of evidence, and had an intuitive genius for saying sensible things about controversial topics.

Alongside the work of the full-time observers Mass-Observation developed the national panel. Between January 1939 and December 1945 more than 2000 individuals responded to monthly directives on issues ranging from everyday wartime inconveniences to the most intimate questions of religious belief and sexual behaviour. There was a large turnover among the respondents, the peak months for new recruits being February 1939 (following publication of the Penguin Special) and January 1942. On average throughout these years 272 people have been identified as responding to each directive, the number peaking at 533 in May 1942 and slowly declining thereafter to around 200 during the last year of the war. At the outbreak of war members of the panel were also invited to send in war diaries recording their everyday activities and observations. By the end of the war over 450 people had responded, some of them only for a few months, a few throughout the war.

Altogether about two hundred diaries written during the first three years of the war survive in the archive, falling away to eighty-six in 1945. Since some of the more prolific of the diarists, notably Nella Last and Naomi Mitchison, wrote up to sixty pages every month, this created an immense body of material. Both replies to directives and the diaries were used by Mass-Observation to supplement survey work on projects carried out by the full-time observers. In using this resource Mass-Observation acknowledged that members of the panel were ‘an above average sample in respect of literacy and intelligence’ (Harrisson, cited in N. Stanley, 166) , drawn disproportionately (though by no means exclusively) from the more progressive sections of the middle classes. Madge characterized them in 1940 as ‘a democratically inspired group of people of varying views but agreed on the importance of social fact’ (Madge to Harrisson, 18 Jan 1940, Mass-Observation archive, organization and history, box 1). While Mass-Observation's rivals in the public opinion business dismissed the panel as unrepresentative Bob Willcock claimed that experience showed that panel responses reflected ‘all the main outlooks and attitudes to be found among the general population’ (Willcock, ‘Polls apart’, Mass-Observation archive, MS box 8), though not their statistical incidence.

When Harrisson returned to England in September 1946 he re-engaged with Mass-Observation and made some attempt to renew sources of funding, including an approach to the Admiralty, which had dumped him in 1942. The characteristically inflated claims he made for Mass-Observation's research (often with scant regard for the frailty of the evidence) threatened the new management's attempts to place it on a sound footing to compete for contracts with other organizations investigating public opinion, and there was probably relief in the office when, in May 1947, he left the country, seduced by an offer of a post as government ethnologist and museum curator in Sarawak.

After the war Mass-Observation, like other products of the 1930s documentary movement, lost impetus. In 1949 it was incorporated as a limited liability company specializing in market research. Although Harrisson was company chairman and held most of the shares Mass-Observation operated mainly as a conventional market research organization during the 1950s and 1960s, directed by Mollie Tarrant and Len England (1901–1999), who had worked for the organization before his call-up and as a volunteer observer in the forces, and had rejoined its staff after the war.

Assembling evidence for future historians was always one of Mass-Observation's main goals and certainly its most successful achievement. The books published by Mass-Observation, and the collection of file reports, topic collections, directive responses, and diaries, deposited at Sussex University in 1970, have become indispensable sources for historians of the period. More problematic is its place in the history of sociology and anthropology. Harrisson, who, like Madge, had dropped out of university, had an ambivalent relationship with academia, alternately abusing its stuffiness and craving its approval. Although Mass-Observation was taken seriously by some academics, most notably Malinowsky, the leading figure in British anthropology at the time, its qualitative and ethnographic approach, which owed a good deal to the Chicago sociologists of the inter-war years, would have been eclipsed by the wave of positivistic quantification that engulfed the social sciences after the war even if Mass-Observation had been more methodical in its own practices. From the 1970s, as interest revived in less top-down, more democratic forms of social knowledge, Mass-Observation was increasingly appreciated for its pioneering work in participant observation and its facilitation of life-writing among the panel members and diarists who had found, through Mass-Observation, ways of reflecting on their own selfhood while contributing to the public good. For these individuals Mass-Observation met a psychological need: beyond that it fostered a practice of confessional participatory citizenship that, it has been argued, anticipated the more progressive possibilities of electronic democracy provided by the worldwide web (Hubble, 2006).

James Hinton


C. Madge and T. Harrisson, Mass-Observation (1937) · C. Madge and T. Harrisson, eds., First year's work, 1937–38 (1938) · H. D. Willcock, ‘Mass-Observation’, American Journal of Sociology, 48/4 (1943), 445–56 · K. Box and G. Thomas, ‘The Wartime Social Survey’, Royal Statistical Society, 3–4 (1944) · T. Harrisson, Britain revisited (1961) · T. Jeffery, Mass-Observation: a short history (1978) · N. Stanley, ‘The extra dimension: a study and assessment of the methods employed by Mass-Observation in its first period, 1937–1940’, PhD diss., 1981 · A. Calder and D. Sheridan, eds., Speak for yourself: a Mass-Observation anthology (1984) · A. Calder, ‘Mass-Observation’, Essays on the history of British sociological research, ed. M. Bulmer (1985) · L. Stanley, An archaeology of a 1930s Mass-Observation project (1990) [Manchester University Sociology Dept occasional paper] · D. Sheridan, ‘Writing to the archive: Mass-Observation as autobiography’, Sociology, 27/1 (1993), 27–40 · J. M. Heimann, The most offending soul alive: Tom Harrisson and his remarkable life (1999) · J. Buzard, ‘Mass-Observation, modernism, and auto-ethnography’, Modernisn/Modernity, 4/3 (1997), 93–122 · J. MacClancy, ‘Mass-Observation, surrealism, social anthropology: a present-day assessment’, New Formations, 44 (autumn 2001) · B. Highmore, Everyday life and cultural theory: an introduction (2002) · T. Kushner, We Europeans? Mass-Observation, ‘race’ and British identity in the twentieth century (2004) · N. Hubble, Mass-Observation and everyday life: culture, history, theory (2006) · Mass-Observation archive, U. Sussex · TNA: PRO, INF 1/261, 1/262; ADM 223/476


U. Sussex