American and other overseas readers may not be familiar with the British Mass-Observation movement, which was founded in 1937 with the aim of creating “an anthropology of ourselves” (and to be honest, I’m not sure just how well-known it is in its homeland these days). Crain has some more links and reading suggestions. The key starting point is the Mass-Observation Archive, which is maintained by Sussex University. The site includes a number of publications, and this is a good introduction to the diaries of some early M-O volunteers. (The BBC’s Woman’s Hour did a piece on them too.)
The founders of M-O were remarkable people in their own right: Charles Madge, a poet and Communist, Tom Harrisson, anthropologist and would-be poet, and – best known of the three – Humphrey Jennings, the leading light of a hugely influential school of British documentary making, an artist and writer. (Who is, wikipedia informs me, buried in Athens near TH White, another very English one-off. Did not know that.) And even if you don’t know about his film-making, you may well have read his monumental anthology of first-hand observations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Pandaemonium: the coming of the machine.
It’s not hard to see analogies between blogging and M-O, and the internet has enabled personal observation and publishing on an unprecedented scale. But we shouldn’t forget the BBC’s now almost-venerable Video Nation (since 1993) – which highlights M-O as a predecessor and inspiration.
And I’m wondering: has there ever been anything like Mass-Observation in north America? Or anywhere else in the world? Or is there something peculiarly British about it?
Humphrey Jennings: the man who listened to Britain
Humphrey Jennings biography
wikipedia on Humphrey Jennings
Fires Were Started
A Cultural History of Pandaemonium
Review of Pandaemonium
Writing for the Mass-Observation project: Bob Rust
How to take part…