Anthropology at Home

The Mass Observation project began with a letter published in the New Statesman in January 1937. It was jointly written by three eclectically talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and filmmaker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). It called on volunteers to cooperate in a new research project, an “anthropology at home … a science of ourselves”. Its list of suggested topics for investigation read like a surrealist poem on the hidden strangeness of mundane life: “shouts and gestures of motorists … behaviour of people at war memorials … anthropology of football pools … bathroom behaviour … female taboos about eating.”

Mass Observation aimed to investigate daily life in modern Britain in the same way that anthropologists were studying remote, tribal societies. Harrisson had spent a year with a tribal community in Malekula in the western Pacific, and he wanted to apply the insights he had acquired there to a study of “the cannibals of Lancashire, the head-hunters of Stepney”. As well as asking volunteers to keep diaries, Mass Observation’s enthusiastic army of lowly-paid researchers interviewed people in the street, listened in to conversations, and observed public behaviour in pubs and factories. Mass Observation wanted to thwart the tendency in modern mass society to live our daily lives deadened by habit, “with as little consciousness of our surroundings as though we were walking in our sleep”. Baffled journalists dismissed these quotidian researchers as “snoopers” and “psycho-anthropologic nosey-parkers”. The New Statesman’s critic joked that the typical Mass Observer must have “elephant ears, a loping walk and a permanent sore eye from looking through keyholes”.

But Mass Observation’s laudable aim was to challenge what it called “the voicelessness of everyman”. When the project began in the 1930s, politicians and the press made no real attempt to find out the views of voters, and ordinary people were rarely seen or heard on film or radio. Mass Observation wanted to plot “weather maps of public feeling,” to make ordinary citizens’ lives and thoughts better known to the people who governed them. It was also interested in how the new forms of community created by mass culture – like astrology, wrestling, the football pools or ballroom dancing, brilliantly dissected in War Begins at Home – functioned as displacement activities for political engagement. How revealing to discover, in the memorable account of the 1938 Munich crisis in Britain, that the people were not really “tensely watching” events in Czechoslovakia as the press suggested, but were “tensely watching the racing news and daily horoscope”.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Mass Observation’s creative forms of social investigation were crowded out by more “scientific” forms of research like opinion polling and market research. But its work is now emerging as the perfect resource for the growing trend for “history from below”: the story of ordinary people rather than of political elites. Mass Observation churned out millions of words on mundane subjects such as filling in the football pools, the contents of sweet-shop window displays and the way that smokers held their cigarettes – words that now shimmer with quirky historical detail, worth a million quantitative surveys. So I am delighted that these books are going to be widely available to a new generation of readers.

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