The Mass Observers: A History, 1937–1949 by James Hinton - review by Paul Addison

Paul Addison

People Watching

The Mass Observers: A History, 1937–1949


Oxford University Press 401pp £30 order from our bookshop

Mass Observation (MO) was founded in 1937 by Charles Madge, a poet and communist, and Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist and freethinking liberal. The motive they shared, as members of the upper-middle class, was the desire to break down the barriers that separated them from the mass of their fellow citizens, the working classes. Both believed that social research was the key to the problem, but Madge was inspired by Marx, Freud and the possibility of finding out what was going on in people’s heads, while Harrisson, whose other passion was bird-watching, was driven by a compulsion to observe and describe behaviour.

The vague prospectus they produced would not win much favour today. Harrisson had been to Harrow and Madge to Winchester, but neither had bothered to complete a degree at Cambridge. They had none of the qualifications needed by applicants for grants from research councils and their lack of anything like a coherent methodology would, in any case, rule them out of consideration. They were explorers who did not know what they would find or even what they were looking for. Harrisson was living in bachelor squalor with a small team of assistants in ‘Worktown’ (Bolton), instructing them to make notes

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter