Paul Addison

People Watching

The Mass Observers: A History, 1937–1949


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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 about anything his restless imagination suggested. Madge, more comfortably ensconced in Blackheath, was building up a panel of volunteers, recruited through the New Statesman, who agreed to report on their personal opinions and experiences.

That such an eccentric, ramshackle project should ever have got off the ground is remarkable. That it should have survived for more than a decade of great creativity, and bequeathed to historians an Aladdin’s cave of source materials, is not only astonishing but something of a mystery. Parts of the story have already been written but our knowledge has been far from complete. Now, at long last, James Hinton has given us a comprehensive account that fills the gaps and clears away the confusions. The Mass Observers is academic history at its very best, meticulously researched and uncompromisingly intelligent, but telling a story with narrative skill and populating it with characters who come to life on the page.

Tom Harrisson is the dominant figure. A misfit with a blazing ego and phenomenal reserves of energy, he was one of the great hustlers of his day. When MO was close to bankruptcy in the early months of the war, it was Harrisson who intrigued with his friend Mary Adams, the Director of Home Intelligence at the Ministry of Information, to put the organisation on the government payroll with a mandate to report on popular morale. When her successor, Stephen Taylor, terminated MO’s contract in 1941, Harrisson soon found a new sponsor in the Advertising Services Guild, a consortium of advertising agents, which gave him a free hand to explore wartime social trends and commissioned a major enquiry into wartime production. By this time he was in sole charge, Madge having quit in 1940 after terrible rows with his over-mighty collaborator.

Harrisson’s wheeling and dealing ensured that MO always had enough money to pay the small band of full-time fieldworkers – the number fluctuated between 10 and 26 – without whom its continuous monitoring of trends and events would have been impossible. Nor did commissions from clients prevent him from pursuing his primary wartime objective of collecting the data from which a social history of the war could eventually be written. By 1945 there were 15 tons of paper in the archive, including 474 war diaries and hundreds of reports on topics as diverse as gas-mask carrying, going to the dentist, women in pubs, greyhound racing, war jokes, astrology and children’s views of the war.

Hinton pays tribute to Harrisson’s ‘marvellously fruitful sociological imagination’. But his outsize personality has always tended to overshadow the contributions of hundreds of other Mass Observers, and Hinton seeks to redress the balance. His biographical and statistical enquiries confirm the impression we have always had of MO as a left-wing, middle-class movement. Harrisson’s fieldworkers included communists such as Celia Fremlin, who went on to write War Factory, and Nina Masel, who reported on anti-Semitism in the East End. Then there was Eric Gulliver, only 16 and ‘overflowing with youthful enthusiasm for all things Soviet’ when he joined MO in 1941. The volunteer panellists were almost as pink in complexion. Of 119 who disclosed their political attitudes in 1943, 115 supported parties of the left or expressed left-wing views. Only Harrisson was out of step. Robustly patriotic and rejecting Marxist notions of class conflict, he imparted a relatively conservative character to MO’s pronouncements.

MO faltered when Harrisson departed in 1944 for the Far East, where he was parachuted into Borneo and organised a force of a thousand headhunters waging guerrilla warfare behind the Japanese lines. After a brief postwar return, he set off again for a long absence in Sarawak, but without him MO lost its vital spark and gradually transformed itself into a market research company. The social scientists who had attacked MO from the start as unscientific seemed to have won the argument, but rescue was at hand. Angus Calder’s book The People’s War (1969) marked the turning point. In flagging up the value of MO’s researches, it paved the way for the establishment of the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. In the fullness of time MO’s reputation was restored by the growing number of young social historians whose ambition was to write history from below.

MO can be seen as a democratising force, but its role was always somewhat ambiguous. As Hinton writes, ‘The question of whether MO was doing more to empower the masses or to facilitate their manipulation by existing elites was one that hovered over its activity throughout the period covered by this book.’ In Harrisson’s own view the main problem on the home front was the gulf between the leaders and the led. MO’s mission was to make the politicians and the civil servants aware of the attitudes and mentalities of the public. The goal was more effective leadership. The fieldworkers and the volunteers, committed as many of them were to the working-class cause, were self-consciously middle class and saw themselves as the vanguard of a planned social order in which they would do the planning. For all its radical intent, MO was symptomatic of a new managerialism: the unresolved issue of 1945 was who the new managers were to be.


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