Researching Ourselves? The Mass-Observation Project

  • Dorothy Sheridan


In 1937, a new social research organisation – Mass-Observation – called for volunteers to take part in a project to document everyday life in Britain. Two of the founders of Mass-Observation, the poet and journalist, Charles Madge, and the film documentary-maker, Humphrey Jennings, were based in London; the third, Tom Harrisson, a selftaught anthropologist, was temporarily based in Bolton in Lancashire. By combining regular reports from amateur (or at any rate unpaid) social commentators from all over the country with reports produced by full-time trained investigators, the Mass-Observers aimed to produce a new kind of popular and participatory social science which they called ‘anthropology at home’ (Madge 1937). A few months after the project was launched, Jennings and Madge described their initiative as follows:

Early in 1937, fifty people in different parts of the country agreed to co-operate in making observations on how they and other people spend their daily lives. These fifty Observers were the vanguard of a developing movement, aiming to apply the methods of science to the complexity of modern culture… They are in the industrial centres, in rural and urban areas, in county towns, suburbs and villages. They include coal miners, factory hands, shopkeepers, sales-men, housewives, hospital nurses, bank clerks, business men, doctors and school masters, scientists and technicians. A large proportion of them have already shown themselves able to write really useful reports. Prof. Julian Huxley has written of some of these that they ‘would put many orthodox scientists to shame in their simplicity, clearness and objectivity’. (Jennings and Madge 1937: iii) This chapter is concerned with the use of a volunteer panel by Mass-Observation between 1937 and the mid-1950s and with the revival of the panel in a new phase of Mass-Observation which began in 1981 and continues to the present day.


Panel Member Regular Report County Town Amateur Observer Home Intelligence 
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© Dorothy Sheridan 2005

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  • Dorothy Sheridan

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