Britain by Mass Observation

Front cover of the Penguin 'Mass-Observation' book

Front cover of Britain by Mass Observation (Penguin Books, 1939)

Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by three young men: Tom Harrisson (1911-1976), an anthropologist experienced in the jungles of Borneo; Charles Madge (1912-1996), a poet and sociologist; and film-maker Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950), who aimed to create an "anthropology of ourselves". They recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. The paid observers were employed to embark on anthropological studies on the life around them in everyday Britain, resulting in questionnaires, surveys, written observations, and reports of overheard conversations all complimented by a rich collection of the ephemera that accompanied such day-to-day activities as going to the cinema, dancing, and surviving air raids.

The panel of volunteers were recruited to record everyday life on a large scale. About 500 men and women kept personal diaries which they sent to Mass Observation in monthly instalments. No special instructions were given to diarists, and consequently the diaries vary considerably in style and content. Although some people maintained a continuous flow for years on end, other diarists wrote intermittently or for one short period. Most diarists stopped after 1945, although a few carried on well into the post-war years. The last diary received is dated 1967.

Volunteers were also recruited to answer Mass Observation's monthly questionnaire (or 'Directive') comprising open ended questions. Themes ranged from opinions on politicians and other nationalities, to views on 1942, from the inconveniences of war, to the 'English Sunday'. Although no more that 500 ever responded to one questionnaire, a total of around 3000 people responded throughout the period.

Photograph courtesy of Special Collections at the University of Sussex Library.

Transcript of the book cover illustrated above: "A PENGUIN SPECIAL. BRITAIN BY MASS-OBSERVATION. MASS-OBSERVATION, a movement started in 1937 by two young men and now embracing some two thousand voluntary observers all over the country, exists to study everyday behaviour in Britain--THE SCIENCE OF OURSELVES."

Mass Observation