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Mass Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people's conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.
The creators of the Mass Observation project were anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Collaborators included the critic William Empson, the photographer Humphrey Spender, the collagist Julian Trevelyan, and the painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell. Run on a shoestring budget with money from their own pockets and the occasional philanthropic contribution or book advance, the project relied most on its network of volunteer correspondents.
Mass Observation began after King Edward VIII's abdication in 1936 to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson. Dissatisfied with the pronouncements of the newspapers as to the public mood, the project's founders initiated a nationwide effort to document the feelings of the populace about the historical event by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and "man-in-the-street" interviews on and around the Coronation of George VI.
"May the Twelfth: Mass Observation Day Surveys 1937 by over two hundred observers" was published in book form. The result tended to subvert the Government's efforts at image-making. The principal editors were Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge, with the help of T. O. Beachcroft, Julian Blackburn, William Empson, Stuart Legg and Kathleen Raine. The 1987 reprint contains an Afterword by Professor David Pocock, director of the Tom Harrisson Mass-Observation Archive.
In August 1939 Mass Observation invited members of the public to record and send them a day to day account of their lives in the form of a diary. No special instructions were given to these diarists so they vary greatly in their style, content and length. 480 people responded to this invitation and their diaries are now held in the Mass Observation Archive.
During the Second World War, Mass Observation research was occasionally influential in shaping British public policy. In 1939 Mass Observation publicly critiqued the Ministry of Information's posters such as the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which led to their being replaced with more appropriate posters. In addition, their study of saving habits were used by John Maynard Keynes successfully to argue for tax policy changes. During the war, there were also a few cases of Mass Observation (MO) doing research on commission for government authorities trying to shape recruiting and war propaganda: Mary Adams, for example, employed MO on commission for the Ministry of Information.
Mass Observation has been criticised by some as an invasion of privacy. Participants were not only reporting on their own lives; they often commented on their neighbours and friends as well. Such an atmosphere of surveillance was in keeping with the rising culture of espionage, which dominated the Second World War, although Mass Observation was an independent, not a government, effort aimed at education rather than manipulation of the public.
Mass Observation had set out to turn the tools of anthropology used to study foreign cultures on Britain's; to be "The Science of Us." Criticism of the scientific validity focusing on the experiment parameters began fairly early, continued throughout its existence, and was a key element in its eventual demise. Because of the self-selecting nature of the observers, they did not represent a scientifically balanced cross-section of British society as a modern public opinion poll would. Although geographically and occupationally diverse, the participants tended to be middle-class, educated, literate, and left of centre.
Decline and end 
Following the war, and the departure of project founders Harrisson, Madge, and Jennings, research began to focus on the commercial habits of the country rather than the broader cultural research that characterised its first decade. This turn towards market research was formalised in 1949 when the project was incorporated as a private firm and, under new management, became registered as a market research limited company, Mass Observation (UK) Limited. Eventually the firm was merged with the advertising agency J.Walter Thompson’s UK research agency BMRB, to form MRB International, followed by full merger in the early 1990s.
A re-evaluation of the tremendous resource of primary historical material that is the Mass Observation archives led to a relaunch of the project in 1981. Today, housed at the University of Sussex, Mass Observation continues to collect the thoughts of its panel of writers through regular questionnaires (known as directives) and is used by students, academics, media researchers and the public for its unique collection of material on everyday life in Britain.
The Mass Observation archive of materials will move from the University of Sussex to The Keep—a new archive housing East Sussex and Brighton and Hove councils' historical records—when the building is completed in 2013.
- Charles Madge & Humphrey Jennings, eds. May the Twelfth, Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937, by over two hundred observers, London, Faber & Faber, 1937. ISBN 0-571-14872-7
- Charles Madge & Tom Harrisson, Britain, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1939
A number of publications are also available from the University of Sussex. The following selection of titles also gives some idea of the scope of Mass Observation's work:
- Attitudes to AIDS
- Bolton Working Class Life
- Children's Millennium Diaries
- Everyday use of social relaxants and stimulants
- Gender and Nationhood. Britain in the Falklands War
- Health, sickness and the work ethic, Helen Busby (2000)
- Looking at Europe: pointers to some British attitudes
- Researching women's lives: notes from visits to East Central Europe
- Mass-Observation: des 'capsules' de vie quotidienne
- One Day in the Life of Television, ed. Sean Day-Lewis (1989)
- Sex surveyed, 1949–1994 – The actual Mass-Observation survey was called Little Kinsey, the results were published in a book by Liz Stanley of the above name.
- Pub and the People: A Worktown study ed. Tom Harrisson (1943)
- Weeping in the Cinema in 1950, Sue Harper and Vincent Porter (1995)
Since the archive was moved and re-established at Sussex University, a number of books based on the diaries commissioned by Mass Observation in 1939 have been published. These include:
- Among You Taking Notes. The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison ed. Dorothy Sheridan. 1985 (Victor Gollancz). 2000 (Phoenix)
- Our Hidden Lives, The Everyday Diaries of Forgotten Britain between 1945–48 ed. Simon Garfield 2005 (Ebury Press)
- Love and War in London. A Woman's Diary 1939–42 by Olivia Crocket, ed. Robert Malcolmson. 2005 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). 2008 (The History Press)
- We Are At War. The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times ed. Simon Garfield 2006 (Ebury press)
- Nella Last's War ed. Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming, 1981 (Falling Wall Press). 2006 (Profile Books)
- Nella Last’s Peace,covering the years 1945–8. ed. Patricia and Robert Malcolmson, 2008 (Profile Books)
- Our Longest Days - a People's History of the Second World War, an anthology ed. Sandra Koa Wong 2008 (Profile Books)
- Wartime Women. A Mass Observation Anthology ed. Dorothy Sheridan 1990 (Heinemann). 2009 (Phoenix Press)
- Dorset in Wartime: The Diary of Phyllis Walther 1941-1942 ed. Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson 2009 (Dorset Record Society)
- Hubble, Nick. Mass-Observation and Everyday Life. Houndmills-Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006. ISBN 1-4039-3555-6. A history of the Mass-Observation movement from a former Research Fellow at the Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex, UK (from back cover).
Findings of Mass Observation have also played a large part in such works of social history as Joe Moran's Queuing for Beginners.
- Mass Observation diaries. An introduction p.1
- Nella Last's Peace p.303
- Article Deck the halls with bread and lard by David Kynaston in "Seven", the Arts and Media section of The Sunday Telegraph issue no 2,428 dated 23 December 2007
- "The Keep". Brighton & Hove City Council. 2012. Archived from the original on 23 December 2012. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
- Mass Observation Archive publications 1974 onwards. Nella Last’s Peace p.304, Nella Last’s War p. vi.
- University of Sussex Mass Observation site
- Caleb Crain. "Surveillance society: The Mass-Observation movement and the meaning of everyday life.". The New Yorker. 11 September 2006.
- Photography taken by Humphrey Spender for the Mass-Observation project in Bolton