Mass Observation

September 12, 2006

Caleb Crain’s New Yorker article on the Mass Observation Movement, a fascinating mid-20th century hybrid of sociology, anthropology and flanerie, is well worth reading. Mass Observation sought to reveal poetic truths about life and culture by connecting the threads of individual and social history with the fabric of the everyday. The movement itself eventually became “history,” but I wonder if it really went away or just lay dormant until the web got up and running. After all, learning about our culture from “mass observations” like website traffic trackers or product recommendation systems is becoming just as much a part of the everyday as driving a car or telling a joke.

On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Anti-semitism.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.” (New Yorker)

Via the incomparable didactique.

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