Mass observation

Dot writes: today, 12th May, is Mass Observation Day. You may or may not have heard of Mass Observation – it was a wonderful project started in 1937 to use volunteer observers to record the details of ordinary British people’s lives. As one of their exercises in their first year, they invited anybody and everybody in Britain to keep a diary of everything they did on one day. That day was 12th May, which happened to be George VI’s coronation day. Mass Observation is still alive and well, and the invitation to submit diaries from the 12th May was repeated in 2010, 2011 and now this year.

I note on their page advertising for recruits for regular Mass Observation participation that they are looking for males aged 16-44 outside the southeast of England. Obviously this is the sort of social project that tends to interest women more than men, older, more leisured people more than people of child-raising age, and apparently also southerners more than northerners, maybe implying an imbalance of the middle classes towards the south. I’m obviously not what they’re looking for – not only am I female but I don’t live in Britain. But I can’t help feeling there’s a group whose observations are even more neglected by the archive, and that’s children under the age of 5. So I think I might start a Mass Observation 12th May diary for Frank.

4.45am woke up. Felt refreshed (after all, I’d fallen asleep in my clothes at 5.15pm). Went into parents’ bedroom, climbed on parents, asked for milk. Parents very lazy and not willing to move. Got into parental bed. Wriggled about until mum rather ungraciously fetched me some water.
Did morning exercises by bracing legs against mother. She kept drifting off to sleep, which reminded me I need to do more exercises.
6.25 woke up again (must have napped). Light coming through the window – announced to mother that it was morning and bounced on her cheerfully until she got up. Went into my bedroom to use potty and managed to tip wee down my back. Cleaned up by mum. Climbed up into Hugh’s bed and told him it was morning too.
Exerted persuasion [shouting] to get mum to fetch down toy farm. Hugh and I found toy farm animals in the toy box. Helped mum to construct farm – she was curiously slow at it. Waited until she had prepared herself some breakfast and then used potty again, and also asked for milk. Argument about whether it should be in a bottle or a beaker. Decided there had been enough imaginative play and it was time to ask for telly.

Actually he is so busy I think this would be rather too burdensome.

It’s a great project, though, isn’t it? They have some excerpts up from the 2010 diaries, noticeable features of which are (a) how doubtful all the contributors are about the then newly-formed Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (and how right they were) and (b) how much time everyone spent on the internet. I suppose much of what is recorded counts in many ways as very dull, but in the short term it’s easy to see why this should appeal to everyone: a chance to feel a little bit important, a chance to take part in something and be a voice talking to the future, and a chance when the excerpts are published to have a little peek into other people’s lives. In the long term, of course, it’s such a wealth of data one wonders how the scholars of the future will ever study it. As an Anglo-Saxonist I feel like that about the twelfth century, let alone the twenty-first.


2 thoughts on “Mass observation

  1. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Cock crowed, got up. Found two Vikings in chicken coop. Killed one Viking; other objected. Wife hit other Viking with Great Aunt Aethelthryth’s hanging bowl. Viking tied up in cow shed. What is the market value of Viking? Is there a bounty? Dent in the hanging bowl. Do not care to think what my mother will say.
    Had porridge. Can’t find favorite ox goad.
    It’s just one thing after another.

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