About Mass Observation and its archive

Mass Observation is a Social Research organisation that operated between 1937 and the early 1950s, although it has continued to collect original material from 1981 onwards too. The Mass Observation Archive is currently located at the University of Sussex.

Its founders wanted to gauge public opinion and measure this against how it was reported in the press and the media of the day. The early ethnographic work of Mass Observation was undertaken by investigators who conducted direct surveys (street to street and door-to-door), but also through indirect evidence where they wrote down what they observed or overheard. Initial work was completed in Bolton in Lancashire, which was known as ‘Work Town‘.

The Mass Observation Archive contains boxes of evidence collected by investigators under over 80 themes, such as politics, smoking, sexual behaviour, shopping etc. The boxes not only contain written records but photographs and also what would normally be regarded as ephemera.

In addition to the paid investigators a National Panel of volunteer writers was set up and they kept diaries of particular dates. Sometimes the writers filled in open-ended questionnaires called directives. Most of the directives in 1938 were concerned with reactions to the Munich Crisis and the imminence of war. There were 128 contributors, 70 men and 58 women.

Image: Book cover, Britain by Mass-Observation, Penguin

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