Public discourses

An image of an original 1947 Mass Observation bulletin.

We are using the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) to investigate how the public have articulated and received different narratives about the role, position and contribution of the voluntary sector in social welfare provision in England during the 1940s and 2010s. The Mass Observation Archive specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981.

Mass Observation in the 1940s

The original Mass Observation was founded in 1937 and continued until the early 1950s. One of its original aims was to create an ‘anthropology at home… a science of ourselves’.

In the 1940s Mass Observation comprised:

  • National panel of volunteer writers: who responded to regular questionnaires known as ‘directives’ and wrote diaries (Nella’s Diary is a famous example)
  • Teams of paid and unpaid observers: who undertook interviews with people in the street; eavesdropped and recorded conversations in everyday places; observed people carrying out everyday activities, including work, leisure, and voluntary work; took photographs and made films; wrote anthropological reports

Mass Observation was commissioned to undertake research among the British public for William Beveridge’s report Voluntary Action, which was published in 1948.  This identified the needs that ‘remain in a social service state’ that could be met through voluntary action. We will examine and re-analyse the raw material for this report which includes responses to questionnaires put to ordinary people on the street and responses from the national panel of volunteer writers.

Mass Observation in the 2010s

The second iteration of the MOA was set up in 1981. Known as the Mass Observation Project (MOP), it is made up of a panel of self-selected volunteer writers. These individuals are asked to write free-form responses to sets of themed questions known as ‘directives’ that are sent out to them three times a year.

Currently the panel consists of about 450 writers. A newly set-up MOP database enables users to identify the demographic characteristics of all writers in the panel. Typically, around 200 of the 450 writers that comprise the panel respond to each directive.

In the 2010s the Third Sector Research Centre commissioned a 2012 directive on The Big Society which echoes several of the questions in the various directives and questionnaires that took place in the 1940s. It includes questions on what writers think about the Big Society, what voluntary work they do, whether there are certain services that the state should provide, and whether they and their communities have the capacity to contribute more in terms of their civic engagement.

We commissioned a new ‘directive’ for MOA writers to respond to in spring 2018. Read about this in our blog here.

We have also collected additional data during our dissemination and interpretation events. We have done a ‘What five words spring to mind when you think about charity’ exercise at several events, and you can see some of the responses in the form of a word cloud here.

At a workshop for older people in Gateshead, we asked them to complete a simplified directive providing an insight into older people’s views.