Nature and Scope


About the Mass Observation Archive
What is an Observer?
Types of Document: directives and responses
Selection criteria and modules
Redactions and data protection
Ethnicity and relationship data

Mass Observation Project consists of all the directives (questionnaires) sent out by Mass Observation and the responses to them from the hundreds of Mass Observers.

Addressing topics such as the Falklands War, clothing, attitudes to the USA, reading and television habits, morality and religion, and Britain's relations with Europe, the directives and responses are an essential resource for anyone interested in late-twentieth-century British social history.

Broad themes covered include current events, friends and family, the home, leisure, politics, society, culture and the media, work, finance and the economy and new technology.


Learn how to get the most out of using Mass Observation Project in our User's Guide. For in-depth analyses of selections of the archival material and case studies of their use, see our Essays and Videos.


Poster for Usborne books sale from C2079's response to 1989 Summer directive part 2Poster for Usborne books sale from C2079's response to 1989 Summer directive part 2


About the Mass Observation Archive

The Mass Observation Archive preserves the papers of the original Mass Observation movement and current Mass Observation Project and makes them publicly available, as part of the University of Sussex's Special Collections at the Keep in Brighton. At the heart of the Archive's work is safeguarding these records to inspire learning and research and ensure they continue to be made available for future generations.

The Archive is a charitable incorporated organisation in the care of the University of Sussex, and is open to all. Lord (Asa) Briggs, as vice-chancellor of the University in 1970, was responsible for bringing the collection to Sussex and opening it up as a public resource for historical research.

The Mass Observation Archive continues to gather documents about everyday life in Britain through the Mass Observation Project, launched in 1981. The Archive also welcomes offers of donations of life-story documents produced by people in accordance with the traditions of Mass Observation. Please visit its page about donating personal papers for more information.

Find out more about the origins and history of Mass Observation here, or read Stephen Brooke's essay.
 

 

What is an observer?

Mass Observation is a project to record British opinion by collecting the writings of hundreds of members of the public, termed 'observers', on specific subjects on which they are invited to share their thoughts.

Under the terms of their participation in Mass Observation, observers' identities are anonymised. Each observer is identified only by an alphanumeric code (e.g. A123) displayed on their submissions, with other details disclosing their identity (principally their name and/or address) redacted, either physically at the archive or digitally on the scanned image.

(In fact it is the numeric part of the code only which is unique to a given observer. The letter is the initial letter of the observer's surname; if an observer changes their surname to one with a different initial letter during their participation in Mass Observation, the letter of their code changes, but not the number. So, for example, the codes A123 and B123 would indicate the same person.)
Screenshot of the document image viewer, with the observer's numerical code visible in the metadata. This can be clicked to see all responses by that individual.
Most observers participate in Mass Observation for a span of years. A document list consisting of all the pieces of writing submitted by a particular observer can be seen by clicking on their numeric observer code in any metadata, or by using our Filter by Observer tool.
Screenshot of a document list containing all the responses from a single observer.
Salient but non-identifying details about each observer, such as their sex, age cohort, occupation, etc., are recorded and have been included in our metadata: see the section on filtering in the User's Guide for more details.

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Types of document: directives and responses

There are two types of document in Mass Observation Project: directives and responses.

Directives are letters sent out several times a year, generally quarterly, to participating observers. Each directive invites observers to share their thoughts and feelings on a particular subject or subjects by sending a response to the Mass Observation Archive.
Screenshot illustrating how directives can be viewed in the document image viewer.
Directives from the first few years of Mass Observation after its refoundation in 1981 tend to be quite diffuse in their subject matter – for example, the summer 1981 directive on new coins, the forthcoming Royal wedding, business premises, unemployment, holidays and food. Later directives are either on one distinct subject or, more often, two. Because the observers who responded to these two-part directives always submitted a separate response to each part, we have presented each part-directive as a separate document for ease of navigation. What we have termed directives 28A and 28B, for example, were sent out together in spring 1989 as directive no. 28.
Screenshot illustrating how two-part directives are linked in the document details.
A response is the packet of material an observer submits in answer to a directive. Most responses consist solely of prose, lists or other writing, but in a substantial minority observers have included ancillary material, e.g. newspaper cuttings, ephemera (flyers, leaflets), drawings, photographs, and occasionally flattened objects, such as food packets.

Ancillary material is particularly prevalent in responses to directives which have solicited it, for example the spring 1982 directive on (among other things) house prices, which asked observers to send in brochures from their local estate agents.
Screenshot illustrating how responses can be viewed in the image viewer. Some responses include ancillary material alongside the written response.
Each response has been indexed in Mass Observation Project as an individual document, tagged with the code of the observer with whom it originates.


Selection criteria and modules

Th first two modules of this resource include all the directives sent out by the Mass Observation Project from when it was started in 1981 to the end of 1999 We have excluded only responses by writers from whom we were unable to secure permission to reproduce their work.

 

Later directives and responses will be added in 2022 (2000 to 2009).
 

Drawing of a living room from B693's response to 1983 Autumn Directive

Drawing of a living room in B693's response to 1983 Autumn directive
 

Redactions and data protection

The administrators of the Mass Observation Project undertake to ensure observers' contributions are anonymous. A thorough and consistent redaction process, agreed in consultation with the Mass Observation Archive and with reference to legal guidelines, has therefore been followed in the creation of this digital resource.

In order to protect observers' privacy, identifying information (such as names and addresses, dates of birth, detailed descriptions of localities, and identifying aspects of photographs) which could compromise a writer's anonymity has been removed.

At no point has redaction been undertaken as a means of censoring these academically important and historically valuable documents.

We would be pleased to receive any questions about these matters at copyright@amdigital.co.uk.

Longitudinal analysis

Further to this, the length of time that the Mass Observation Project has been running means that it provides researchers with the potential for longitudinal analysis (analysing a writer’s responses over a number of years). We recognise the exciting opportunity this offers and want to continue to ensure that such work maintains the anonymity of our writers. If you are thinking of undertaking a study that concentrates on specific writers and uses substantial amounts of an individual’s contributions please contact the archive for guidance at moa@sussex.ac.uk.

Ethnicity and relationships data

No information about writers’ ethnicity has been recorded to date. Researchers looking for this information would need to read responses to Mass Observation Directives.

The relationship status of the Mass Observers has been recorded in the database by using the biographical forms completed by the Mass Observers in the early 1990s, or when they join the MOP, if this was after the 1990s. This form has the following tick boxes: single, married, separated, divorced, co-habiting, widowed and in a civil partnership.

Since 2004 gay writers have been able to identify themselves as in a civil partnership, or co-habiting, and since 2014 as married or co-habiting. However, prior to this, some writers living with same-sex partners may have identified in different ways, some as ‘co-habiting’, and some as single (particularly older writers who had lived through times when male same-sex relationships were criminalised, and homophobia in the UK was rife). Therefore the term/measurement ‘marital status’ has had an inconsistent meaning over time, and we believe that some writers in same-sex relationships are missing from this particular record.

In 2021 Mass Observation will be updating their biographical forms to capture the ethnicity and sexual orientation of new writers. In due course the records of current writers will be updated.

See a copy of the Biographical Form competed by Observers.