A unique legacy

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - MASS OBSERVATION -

Af­ter the war, Mass Ob­ser­va­tion’s founders moved onto other things, and the pro­ject was slowly wound up. For­tu­nately, the pa­pers were kept safe and were even­tu­ally de­posited with the Univer­sity of Sus­sex. They are now held in the univer­sity’s col­lec­tions at The Keep ar­chive cen­tre in Falmer, just out­side Brighton ( the­keep.info).

His­to­ri­ans are di­vided about the worth of Mass Ob­ser­va­tion. A critic wrote of one study that: “The facts sim­ply mul­ti­ply like mag­gots in a cheese.”

In­deed, much of what ob­servers recorded is triv­ial and un­in­ter­est­ing. They stud­ied which end of a cig­a­rette peo­ple tapped be­fore light­ing it. It was found that 53 per cent tapped the end they put in their mouths.

Even the di­arists oc­ca­sion­ally doubted the worth of what they were writ­ing. In the middle of May 1940, one of their num­ber Pam Ash­ford, wrote: “If my great grand­mother had kept a di­ary on the Eve of Water­loo, and had recorded all the triv­i­al­i­ties I put into mine on the eve of this ter­ri­ble bat­tle that is com­ing, well I should think she was daft.”

Al­though Har­ris­son claimed that the or­gan­i­sa­tion was sci­en­tific and thor­ough, it was any­thing but. In the Work­town stud­ies, for ex­am­ple, there is noth­ing about Bolton Wan­der­ers, whose foot­ball matches were at­tended by thou­sands of work­ing men, yet there is a de­tailed study of mi­nor Chris­tian sects that at­tracted few ad­her­ents.

The ob­servers, whose di­aries are now re­garded as be­ing the most im­por­tant part of the ar­chives, have also been crit­i­cised as be­ing un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive, as most writ­ers were self-se­lect­ing, middle class and few were ac­tively en­gaged in war work. But Tom Har­ris­son ar­gued: “At this de­gree of in­ti­macy, the word ‘typ­i­cal’ is no longer suit­able. No one is pri­vately typ­i­cal of any­one else.”

Si­mon Garfield who has used the Mass Ob­ser­va­tion Ar­chives ex­ten­sively for a se­ries of best­selling books, says that the di­arists “co­gently and en­gag­ingly con­trib­uted to what is now uni­ver­sally re­garded as a unique and in­valu­able record of quiet lives trans­formed by events far be­yond their con­trol”.

And what they wrote is of­ten a use­ful an­ti­dote to the usual pro­pa­ganda about the war that is still trot­ted out to­day. Through the re­ports and di­aries they left be­hind we get a flavour of ev­ery­day life at the time that the 1939 Na­tional Reg­is­ter was be­ing com­piled. Si­mon Fowler is a pro­fes­sional writer, his­to­rian and teacher. He has used the Mass Ob­ser­va­tion Ar­chives to look at the lives of sol­diers dur­ing the Se­cond World War.

Staff at the Mass Ob­ser­va­tion pro­ject help to plan a sur­vey at their head­quar­ters

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