Home > 19 (3), 7

The Observers and the Observed: The 'dual Vision' of the Mass Observation Project

by Anne-Marie Kramer
University of Nottingham

Sociological Research Online, 19 (3), 7
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3455

Received: 10 Dec 2013 | Accepted: 4 Jun 2014 | Published: 15 Aug 2014


In Summer 2008 I commissioned a Part 1 Directive on 'Doing Family History Research' from the Mass Observation Project as part of a Leverhulme-funded project[1] on the status and significance of genealogy and its role and consequences in personal and family lives. Drawing on examples from this research project, this article will consider how we can understand Mass Observation correspondents as generating sociological knowledge and insight through what I will call 'dual vision'. Correspondents write about personal, interior and family lives by being both the observers and the observed, simultaneously commenting upon personal and family life as a social phenomenon (detailing the 'typical case'), and able to document their own personal and family lives in detail. Further, given the function of the MOP to record for posterity, Mass Observers also consciously situate themselves and their accounts not just in social or geographical space, but also in relation to history, and in time. I will argue that MOP accounts of personal, interior and family lives are useful to sociologists both because this 'dual vision' makes possible rich and reflexive descriptions of personal and family life, but possibly more importantly, because it allows us to see how people consciously imagine and embed themselves in their social, geographical and temporal context through relating their own experiences to the 'typical case'.

Keywords: Mass Observation; Reflexivity; Situatedness/social Location; Contextualisation; Temporality; Family History/genealogy; Social Observation


1.1 Firstly, I will explore how the structure and purpose of the Mass Observation Project is premised upon collaboration, which facilitates Mass Observers' often considerable and detailed engagement with the Directive's theme and remit. Secondly, I will show that Mass Observers' sense of purpose in documenting the experiences and attitudes of 'ordinary' people, for researchers in the present and the future, means that they are particularly aware of the importance of contextualising their responses. This attentiveness to context means that many Mass Observers offer reflexive and considered accounts of social life in which they consciously and unconsciously imagine and embed themselves in their social, geographical and temporal context, and insightfully consider how this situatedness frames and shapes the accounts they present. Lastly, I will argue that the dual role of Mass Observers both to document social life, and to write about their own experiences and opinions, results in what I call 'dual vision', where Mass Observers write simultaneously about social life by being both the observers and the observed. This 'dual vision' means that many Mass Observers are prompted to write reflexively about the relationship between their own personal experience and their social observations, allowing them to draw out and reflect upon the distinctiveness of their experience and knowledge. I then argue that the richness of Mass Observation data is facilitated by the unique status of the Mass Observer. But let me first introduce the 2008 Family History Directive.

The 2008 Family History Directive

2.1 Part 1 of the Summer 2008 Directive asked about family history, and in particular, why family history is popular, who does it, what questions it answers, who is most interested in it, the relationships between family history research and history, how people do family history, and the role of family history in correspondents' lives, or the lives of their family. We posed a broad set of questions here, encouraging Mass Observers to reflect on the nature of the 'boom' in genealogy as well as documenting their own, or their family's experiences with genealogy. The breadth of the prompts reflected an understanding that the topic of family history might not appeal to all Mass Observers, and that all Mass Observers must be able to relate to the topic in some fashion.

2.2 It is certain that the topic of the Directive guides Mass Observers to write in particular ways, and to consider particular issues in their writing. In this case, the topic of family history might well have encouraged Mass Observers to be particularly reflexive about social and historical context. This notwithstanding, the majority of Mass Observers, although interested in family history, were not themselves carrying out family history research, nor had they previously considered or valued the topic or hobby. An interest in family history therefore cannot entirely explain why Mass Observers are likely to think in a socially and historically conscious way.

2.3 In retrospect, I would probably have asked Mass Observers to focus more on their own experiences, as this aspect of the Directive allowed writers to focus in depth on the meaning of family history in their own lives, and enabled them to tell the most interesting and revealing stories. The way that the Directive was worded probably also influenced the kinds of answers we received: the detailed prompts of the Directive encouraged Mass Observers to write answers which responded to each prompt individually, which did at times mean that the responses were rather fragmented, and perhaps limited the amount of engagement Mass Observers could have with each individual prompt. As seems common with the Mass Observation Project (hereafter, MOP) responses in general, the amount of writing varied considerably, from a few lines, to twelve pages of closely written text (Sheridan 1996: 14). There was also a great deal of variation in the degree of engagement with the prompts in the Directive, with some responses offering highly reflexive and detailed life story accounts, and others only offering a rather superficial engagement with the topic. In amongst the variation, the Directive generated many detailed and intimate responses. It is these detailed and intimate responses that I will refer to in depth throughout this article.

MOP's negotiated relationships

3.1 The MOP can be understood in a number of ways. It is on the one hand, an archive of mostly textual material, a set of written accounts which have been generated by the Mass Observer panel in response to questions posed through Directives. However, we might also understand the MOP as being constituted by a number of subjects or agents. These subjects or agents include the institution of the University of Sussex, with which the Mass Observation Archive has been associated since the 1970s, the Director and Trustees, individual staff members, as well as individual correspondents. They also include those who use the archive, both those who commission Directives, and those who have not directly commissioned a Directive, but use the archived Directive responses for research. The written accounts of the MOP are called into being, framed, and shaped not just by the subjects or agents listed above, but by the negotiated relationships between these subjects or agents. These relationships are in turn mediated through the Directive and play a key role in shaping and informing the writing. Shaw, for example, writes that the MOP is:

composed of several sets of co-ordinated relationships: individual writer to the M-OA1, M-OA to writer, archive staff to the writer and to the academic community, individual researcher to individual M-O writer or to the panel of writers as a whole. (Shaw 1998: 6)

3.2 Taking the negotiated relationship between the MOP as an institution and the commissioning researcher first, a commissioning researcher cannot simply 'script' a new Directive and 'add in' pre-formulated questions to the existing archive of Directives and responses. Directives are co-written by MOP staff and outside researchers, and described as a collaboration rather than a simple commission. This is because Directives have to satisfy a number of criteria, including the requirement that all Mass Observers are able to relate to the topic in some form, that the new Directive does not substantially replicate an earlier Directive, that there is a balance between more abstract and more personal topics, and, that the Directive fits with 'house style' (Mass Observation Project 2013). In commissioning new Directives, Mass Observation staff are keen to safeguard the distinctiveness of the remit of the MOP, and also to protect their relationship with the panel. This process of collaboration and redrafting may shift the tone, emphasis and content of a Directive from that originally envisaged by the commissioner. For example, reflecting on her own experience of writing a MOP Directive, Busby commented:

The writing of these questions and prompts emerged from a discussion between myself and the archivists about the existing data within the archive on health and illness. Having then decided to jointly write a new directive on this theme, we widened the focus from my initial emphasis on employment and health to the social context of health and illness more generally. (Busby 2000: 4)

3.3 The relationship between Mass Observation archivists and the Directive commissioner is perhaps the most obvious negotiated relationship which underpins the MOP. However, at the actual heart of the MOP is the relationship between Mass Observers and the institution of Mass Observation itself, which the MOP staff are understandably anxious to protect. Sheridan notes that:

when someone volunteers to take part in the project, he or she is effectively entering into a new relationship. The relationship may be with a depersonalised institution (the Archive), with a people or community (the Archive staff), with an individual [director]… Or with a much vaguer public: historians and researchers now and in the future. (Sheridan 1993: 35)

3.4 As Sheridan has observed, the complex relationship between panel members and the institution of Mass Observation can be imagined as something abstract (writing for the archive and posterity), or personal (writing for the Director, the researcher, Archive staff). Mass Observers' comments about the expectations of users of the Archive, and Archive staff themselves, make clear that many spend time thinking about their relationship, and the relationship of the writing they produce, to the Archive and its users. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the remit of Mass Observation, as Sheridan puts it, to 'document' social life, that panel members assess both how closely their account matches the Directive's theme in terms of content, and how well their account bears witness to contemporary social life and attitudes. Many Mass Observers are not only conscious of responding to multiple imagined audiences, but also write reflexively about how best to accommodate these different needs and perspectives.

3.5 Such attitudes are borne out in responses to the Family History Directive. Mass Observers frequently comment on how, and to what extent, their writing matches the interests, preoccupations and purposes of these different imagined audiences. But it was also noticeable that many Mass Observers take the opportunity to assess the Directive itself. Sheridan puts this down to Mass Observers' sense of 'ownership' of Mass Observation, which she attributes to their considerable investment in the purpose, remit and success of the MOP:

The Mass-Observation Archive is claiming to build a detailed written picture of everyday life in Britain. Most people who take part have strong feelings about what this picture should cover. On occasion, correspondents complain about the directives because they seem trivial, or irrelevant. Equally there are complaints if the directive is perceived as asking for too much (or too little), or if it is suggesting a slant that is deemed inappropriate (too subjective, too personal)… This argumentativeness suggests two things; first that there is an implicit proper way to write a directive (and presumably a proper way to reply), and second, and perhaps more importantly… there is an element of possessiveness or ownership in the attitude to the project on the part of the correspondent. The correspondents feel themselves to be genuinely participants. It is (also) their project and they are entitled to criticise. (Sheridan 1993: 36)

3.6 Sheridan notes that far from being a rejection of the value of the MOP, such critical engagements with the phrasing, content and purpose of Directives represent the active engagement of Mass Observers with the remit of the Archive, and indeed, an attempt to shape the character of Directives and responses such that the quality is maintained, both for current researchers and historians in the future.

3.7 Similarly to Sheridan's conclusions, in responding to the Family History Directive, Mass Observers often commented upon the nature of the task before them. This included an assessment of the general topic and the substantive issues offered as food for thought in the prompts, the wording of the Directive, the suitability of the topic's inclusion within a Directive, and its suitability within the archive more broadly. Sometimes this also involved an assessment of how well the writer was able to respond to the Directive's theme and questions, or indeed, a justification for writing about some entirely other topic and ignoring Directive prompts.

3.8 As well as noting and assessing the degree to which they were able to respond to the Directive, some Mass Observers additionally commented on the theme or wording of the Directive itself. Sometimes these comments were approving in tone, in particular when Mass Observers described themselves as interested in family history as a hobby. In responses to the Family History Directive, one Mass Observer carefully explained that his experiences of family history research neatly mapped onto the themes of the Directive: 'I will tell the story of our research, some of which we did together in the Family Record Centre and the lot which I did "online" and by email. It covers the why, the how and the outcome very nicely' (R470, male, 74 years, retired LGV driver, widower, Basildon). Here we can see R470 explaining why his answer is structured in this way, and offering a further account of how his writing helps to answer the Directive's questions. Mass Observers do not then simply write of their experiences: they explain and account for the relevance of the information they provide, allowing researchers not just access to personal experience, but also insight as to how Mass Observers understand and present the value of their knowledge and experience.

3.9 In a few cases, Mass Observers deliberately explained their own personal experiences rather than specifically responding to the Directive prompts. One Mass Observer explained that his own personal experiences were of over-riding importance: 'Because of my personal experiences, I will explain that experience, instead of answering individual items listed' (B1442, age 85, male, retired, formerly worked in aviation). This marks a deliberate setting-aside of the Directive prompts in service of telling one's own life history; nevertheless, this can still be understood as a response to the prompts, given the setting-aside is noted and explained.

3.10 Other Mass Observers explained that they found the prompts unhelpful, and difficult to respond to, as they did not have the relevant experience to respond to the Directive adequately. One commented, without providing a response: 'I'm afraid that I cannot submit an entry on this topic as I find it almost indescribably boring' (B1989, male aged 81, retired teacher, widower, living in Tunbridge Wells, former Liberal Democrat borough and county councillor). Another seemed to force herself to respond even though this required a great deal of extra effort, given the Directive themes: 'For the first time in my twenty odd year of contributing, I can find nothing of the remotest interest in the themes, still, here goes' (B1180; retired female, south coast). Critique of this kind was often startling to encounter, particularly when one was directly addressed as an outside researcher who had instigated the Directive. As Sheridan observes, this commentary about the scale and scope of contribution to answering the Directive alerts us to the fact that 'defining the task is not only about interpreting external prescriptions. The correspondent also enters into a process of negotiation with his or her own understanding of what the writing ought to be about, even what a "proper" Mass-Observer should be' (Sheridan 1993: 36). Thus the responses of Mass Observers are crafted in relationship to their perception of what an appropriate answer could and should include.

3.11 On the one hand, then, we can understand Mass Observation, as discussed above, to be both a body of written accounts which respond to Directives, and a set of negotiated relationships, which are mediated through the Directives, and often directly problematised in Mass Observation accounts. But we can also understand the MOP as embodying various purposes, which are again often reflected in Mass Observers' comments on how and why they are writing as they are writing. This includes writing 'for' the archive, both in the present, and in the future, writing to fulfil the research objectives of the commissioner of the Directive, writing for themselves and to bear witness for others, as well as writing to be 'a good citizen', to bear witness for the future (Shaw 1998). In writing for the MOP, Mass Observers often consciously frame their writing in response to these various purposes. What emerges from this is a sense that the MOP writers are themselves engaged in a process of collaboration, in trying to 'get it right' for posterity, for the Archive, for the researcher, and for the user. Sheridan notes:

[Mass Observers] write with a consciousness not only of their own role in the constructions of history, but also with a critical awareness of the possible uses and abuses of their writing which springs from a genuine research partnership engaged in the task of mapping our social lives. (Sheridan 1996: 16)

3.12 Given this awareness of what Sheridan calls the 'possible uses and abuses of their writing', it is not surprising that Mass Observers often attempt to manage the expectations of the reader and researcher. Half way through his Directive response, C3167 wrote: '[s]ome of the comments made above might have given the impression that I see researching your family history as the sort of trivial pursuit favoured by rather self absorbed people, it is, of course, nothing of the sort' (C3167, male 37, single, Stoke on Trent, warehouse operative). Interestingly here, this Mass Observer qualifies his preceding comments as he is concerned not to 'give the wrong impression' of his opinion on the meaning and significance of family history. He therefore attempts to manage how his ideas are read, as well as how they are written.

3.13 Some Mass Observation writing reads like 'thinking aloud', trying to get to the heart of what the researcher/ Directive is asking, representing a dialectical and dialogical process of engagement with the purpose, form and content of writing for Mass Observation, a 'genuine research partnership', as Sheridan puts it. And part of 'getting it right' also involves Mass Observers thinking critically and reflexively, as we shall see, about the nature of the contribution they can make to answering that Directive. This makes clear that the MOP is very much a collaborative project, which is co-created by Mass Observers, archive staff, researchers and users of the archive. In their assessments of the contributions they can make to answering this Directive as well as their positive and critical comments on the Directives, we see Mass Observers clearly re-negotiating their terms of engagement with the MOP, as well as evaluating the remit and purpose of the MOP itself.

3.14 In the next section of the article, I will consider how Mass Observation facilitates multiple vantage points on social life, and how Mass Observers' awareness of the partiality of their vantage point facilitates them carefully situating these accounts in social, geographical and temporal space.

Situating the self

4.1 The MOP privileges the experience of 'ordinary' people in bearing witness to contemporary social life. As Shaw writes:

By joining M-O[2] the writers readily cast themselves as the people's representatives, and it is this obligation or desire to communicate and reveal the detail of ordinary life as something socially and historically important which frames the writing. (Shaw 1998: 4-5)

4.2 Mass Observers frequently present their writing in the context of different social roles, signposting which aspects of their responses draw on personal experience or wider knowledge. They often frame their writing as a report from a field-worker or observer, or as someone who has direct experience of the issue being considered (Bloome et at 1993), as 'the people's representatives' (Shaw 1998). Others use examples drawn from family and friendship networks to explain the popularity, methodology and consequences of family history research. As social observers, they draw on different types and contexts of knowledge, including not just personal experience, but also historical and community knowledge (ibid.). I do not claim that this makes Mass Observation representative (for an excellent summary of debates on this issue, see Pollen 2013), but I would argue that Mass Observation facilitates multiple vantage points on the same topic. In the case of my own research project, it enabled me to explain the family history phenomenon from the vantage point of those who were actively resistant to family history, those who had never undertaken any research, those whose family members were actively engaged in it, as well as those who felt directly addressed by it, such as those who had been adopted.

4.3 Given that personal experience is necessarily subjective, it must always be partial and located, and Mass Observers indeed frequently comment reflexively on the limits of their understanding and knowledge, given this partiality and social locatedness. The strength and richness of Mass Observation here is not just that it is able to reflect the perspectives and experiences of a wide range of people, but also that Mass Observers carefully identify the limits of their knowledge, as Busby notes, bearing witness, and in so doing, 'tak[ing] on some of the methodological work which is conventionally assumed to belong to the social researcher' (Busby 2000:3). For example, one Mass Observer wrote:

I have done research on my family history and did it over about 4 years, giving up when the leads died… I cannot speak for other people but I did mine following early retirement and at a time when I was looking for a hobby, it fulfilled that function well. (R3422, male, 61, single, Brentwood, Essex, retired bank manager)
What is interesting here is less that this Mass Observer clearly signposts his knowledge and expertise in the topic, but that at the same time as signposting this knowledge and expertise, he simultaneously disavows speaking for others. Here he stresses the singularity and partiality of his knowledge and understanding.

4.4 Purbrick noted of her Directive on giving and receiving wedding presents, that:

Mass-Observation writers provided information not just about what they gave or received but about the contexts in which such acts of consumption took place and took form. The drive to contextualise can be seen in the writing of a female correspondent, married in 1956, now divorced and living in Oxford. Precise details of objects are provided only after her reader has been given information about her social circumstances. (Purbrick 2003: 224)
Such a drive to contextualise and to explain social background similarly infused many of the responses to the Family History Directive. This stems from an awareness on the part of Mass Observers that Mass Observation as a genre is subjective and interpretive in nature, that answers to Directives are socially located, and that their own social location therefore in part determines their vantage point, and thus how they respond to Directives. Therefore, Mass Observation accounts are not just partial and interpretive, but are deliberately described and presented as such, because the social context is seen to be crucial to an understanding of the value and meaning of the account. If Mass Observers write as the 'people's representatives' (Shaw 1998), then, it is in the awareness that they can only speak about the experiences of a carefully delineated segment of the overall population, if they are willing to speak for the experiences of others at all.

Self-discovery, self-accounting

4.5 Sheridan, among others, has commented that given the multiple writing conventions which MOP writers draw on, including 'letter-writing, answering questionnaires, being interviewed, keeping a diary, writing a life story', the MOP is a form of writing which might be described as its own genre (Sheridan 1993: 34). The tone and content of the Directives frequently require, and solicit personal experiences; thus we might understand MOP writing as 'a form of collective or multiple autobiography' (ibid.), or life-writing.

4.6 As we have seen, Mass Observers look for 'clues', prompts and messages in the Directives in order to shape their responses appropriately (Sheridan 1993), and for many, the Directive theme offers an opportunity to 'take stock' of themselves and their experiences. As Shaw puts it, '[t]he writer discovers aspects of themselves in the act of writing' (Shaw 1998). Many discuss in their responses to the Family History Directive how much they are able to respond to its theme and perspective, assessing what experience and perspectives they can bring to bear in answering the questions posed. This reflexive interrogation of their contribution to knowledge includes describing how well their account matches what they imagine to be the commissioner's requirements, what experiences they will draw on, as well as the extent of their knowledge on the topic.

4.7 For example, P2138 writes approvingly: '[w]hat a subject! I could bore for England on it. First I will give my personal experiences & then answer the pointer in the Directive' (P2138, female, born 1920s, married, Chorley, Lancs, former statistician in the X-ray department, also freelance reporter for the BBC). Similarly, G2640 registers her interest and sympathy with the theme of the Directive: 'I am writing this because it "speaks to me". I have been researching my family tree (on + off) since 1987, the year my grandmother died' (G2640, female, 56, divorced, Hounslow, librarian). For others, the Directive offered an opportunity to 'account for themselves', and to explain why they did not have much to say, or why they were not interested in family history or undertaking family history research. For some this was a simple statement of fact; others used the Directive to take stock of themselves in order to assess the influence of family circumstances and to explain their disposition towards family history: 'I wonder if the fact that my Mother was adopted and that I don't have contact with my Father and his family influences my view of FHR, or would that not be impetus for me to research on FHR? I don't know.' (S3264, Male, 30, engaged, Darlington, IT service desk team leader). Here we can clearly see Mass Observers both accounting for their opinions and feelings on family history research, and reflecting upon how their social location might have influenced these opinions and feelings. What is interesting and valuable here is the way that Mass Observers reflect on the role of their family circumstances in shaping their dispositions and attitudes.

4.8 Directives are used by some Mass Observers, particularly those who write in a more autobiographical vein, as a vehicle through which the self is assessed, and if found wanting, accounted for. The presumption is that a Mass Observer should have something relevant and interesting to contribute; therefore, a lack of knowledge of, or interest in, the Directive's themes must therefore be explained. One Mass Observer wrote:

I cannot recall from memory any Directive in the last 20 years or so that has less firmly stirred me into settling down to tell the world in my impeccable prose what is wrong and how to put it right. I really was not aware that Family History Research was the popular pastime that your words suggest. (R2143, male, married, 86 years old, Hythe, Hampshire, former chartered engineer, managing the construction of large industrial plants worldwide)
Here R2143 registers his lack of engagement with the topic, but tellingly, the mismatch between this Mass Observer's knowledge and experience and the demands of the Directive is later described in his account as significant because it is framed as evidence of this Mass Observer's lack of knowledge about contemporary life. It seems to sadden and frustrate R2413 that he has so little awareness of the family history phenomenon, and hence, so little to contribute. Rather than the Mass Observer providing understanding about contemporary social life to researchers, here the direction of travel is in the other direction, with this Mass Observer assessing his own understanding of contemporary social life on the basis of the questions being asked.


4.9 In responses to the Family History Directive Mass Observers located their understanding of the meaning of the Directive, and their ability to answer it, in terms of their own personal dispositions, and family characteristics, carefully situating their accounts in personal, social, geographical and temporal space. The Directive gave Mass Observers the opportunity to explore the significance of family history in their personal lives. As one Mass Observer wrote:

… you can't deny your dynasty, your heritage… I know I look like my PATERNAL GRAND MOTHER. I never met her, she died when I was small. I have only ever seen one photo of her, but I can recognize my features in her. My father told me alot [sic] about his mother. How eccentric she was, a bit psychic and very very "feisty" and very "strong".
I can recognize myself in her character, both good aspects and negative aspects. (L1002, Female, 61, widow, Staffordshire, retired sales assistant)

4.10 Here we learn not just that family history is important to this Mass Observer. We learn how and why a specific ancestor is important. We learn how knowledge of this character has been passed on to family members who never met her. We also learn on what basis this Mass Observer identifies with this character, and how this character from the family past shapes her own understanding of her simultaneous individuality and 'fit' within her own family. In another response, again we see how family history facilitates 'rootedness' and 'fit' with another cultural context:

I often think about that other family that I guess I must have in Ireland. I have always had a love of Irish literature and folk music, and it was quite an affirming moment to know that it was 'in the blood'. I feel more of an interest now my father has died – if I could find more family, it would be a link and connection to him. (M3142, female, 49, married, North Cave, teacher)

4.11 This is rich material indeed, revealing of the role family history plays in identity work, both within families, and within personal lives, as I have documented elsewhere (Kramer, 2011a; Kramer 2011b). Mass Observers also write not just as an individual with relevant experience to relate, but also as members of a specific social group, writing as an adopted person, as a young person, as a second son, and so on. Here, because it is particularly interesting, I am going to discuss how Mass Observers contextualised their accounts in relation to temporality.

4.12 For some Mass Observers, contextualising their accounts in relation to temporality meant an awareness of writing about the family history at a particular moment in historical time, for example, comparing their own situation to that of their forebears: 'My family came from a very humble background and it almost made me feel guilty about the way I live today' (F4322, female, 43, married, Flintshire, PhD student and volunteer CAB adviser). Similarly, for other Mass Observers, this meant thinking about the personal consequences of social mobility over the generations:

I just feel rather proud that from unpromising and disadvantaged circumstances we have all managed to improve our financial, educational and physical situation and that although perhaps bowed down by poverty and illness our parents, grandparents and great grandparents set us on this path. (M1979, female, 70, divorced, Wiltshire, former inspector of schools)

4.13 For yet others, this rooting in time meant understanding how the personal and family situation was related to a wider historical context:

It is comforting to know where your roots are… To find someone similar to you or to find that you are an echo of their lives or even repeating a pattern is a precious thing. (D3644, female, 26, single, Birmingham, library assistant)
Here Mass Observers carefully situate their accounts in time, relating their experiences, opinions and attitudes to the experiences, opinions and attitudes of previous generations.

4.14 Others located themselves temporally by discussing shifting selves across the life-course, assessing and evaluating the knowledge and experience of past as well as possible future selves. Older Mass Observers often observed that genealogy was something that had not interested them when they were younger (see for example W3994, female, aged 36, working as a fundraiser in the voluntary sector. Living in Bolsover, Derbyshire, with partner and 2 young daughters). Conversely, younger Mass Observers were likely to comment that family history might well be a hobby that they pursued when they were older, as a 'retirement project' (see for example, G2818 male 53 single Manchester teacher). As well as being aware of multiple individual vantage points and subjective responses to family history, some Mass Observers were thus also aware that their vantage points were not fixed, but had shifted, and were likely to shift further, over time.

4.15 This attentiveness to context means that many Mass Observers offer reflexive and considered accounts of social life in which they describe how they imagine and embed themselves in their social, geographical and temporal context, and they further consider the role that this context has played in shaping their experiences, dispositions and attitudes. This enables us to explore not only how social location frames and shapes the accounts which are presented, but also to explore how Mass Observers present their dispositions, attitudes and experiences as being inextricably linked to, and understood within, the context of their social location.

'Dual vision': Combining personal experience with social observation

5.1 We have seen that Mass Observers both write autobiographically and carefully contextualise their accounts. But they also have 'dual vision': as well as recounting their personal experiences, they also document or 'bear witness' to contemporary social life, making observations about society, as well as describing their own individual personal experiences. They are then both the self-observed, and the observer. This dual role, and the 'dual vision' it engenders, uniquely prompts Mass Observers to link personal experience and social observation in a way which facilitates reflexivity, and so generates valuable sociological knowledge and insight.

5.2 Mass Observers are not 'simply' responding to the questions of a researcher; they write for posterity in the knowledge that their responses will be curated and archived for future generations. As Sheridan puts it, Mass Observers: 'are documenting their times, and in doing so, writing themselves, and their families, friends and communities, into a particular and possibly alternative historical record' (Sheridan 1996: 16). In order to write authoritatively about contemporary social life, Mass Observers then draw upon experiences and knowledge from a range of contexts and vantage points.

5.3 Sometimes, if it is relevant, Mass Observers use personal experience as a form of social observation. For example, many report their own experiences and interest in family history as evidence of the 'boom' in family history research. More typically, though, Mass Observers draw on knowledge gleaned via social networks, family and friends: '[w]ithin our local conversation volunteers group there are two people who work on their family history in their spare time. I think my aunt does as well, or at least did for a time' (E2977, male, age 26, single, living in Ironbridge and working locally on a factory production line). Similarly, many commented on the role of the family historian within the extended family:

In my experience there is often one member of a set of first cousins who becomes particularly interested in FH [family history] and adopts the role of archivist for the family, which can extend to taking in the old pictures (or digital photos of them) from the wider group. (V3767, male, aged 70, married, Cambridge, semi-retired from managing his own company)

5.4 Alternatively, Mass Observers drew on what they had observed as an 'ordinary member' of society:

Recently, I went into my local library and was amazed at the number of people peering at screens, closely examining birth, marriage and death certificates and any other documents that they could lay hands on which help them to trace their ancestors.
It was simply the number of people doing this rather than their reasons for doing so that surprised me. (P3209, male, 69, married, East Yorkshire, artist)

5.5 Many commented that their understanding of the family history phenomenon as an 'ordinary' member of society accorded with the assumptions made in the Directive: 'FHR [family history research] does indeed seem to be very popular right now. I have no problem thinking of people (including myself) who are working on it' (P3213, female, 42, married, housewife, mother and volcanologist, Wales). However, others were more critical in tone. This included those who questioned whether an interest in family history was as widespread as the Directive had claimed: 'I am not convinced FHR has become "so popular now". I know of only one person who has spent time on this, so by my reckoning somewhere between one in fifty and a hundred have taken time to do so' (A883; 75, male, married, retired architect, Chelmsford). A few argued that the family history 'boom' was not a recent phenomenon, as we had claimed in the Directive: '[t]his directive suggests that FHR is a recent area of interest, but my first contact with it was more than 40 years ago' (F3409, 61 years old, married, living in a village near Nottingham. Was a part-time Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths for 9 years, formerly a civil servant for 26 years, now retired). Here we can clearly see Mass Observers using their experiences, knowledge and vantage points either to validate or to 'correct' erroneous assumptions within the Directive.

5.6 Given that part of their self-identified role is to document social life, Mass Observers are also unsurprisingly often keen to contradict stereotypes on the basis of their own experience. Here personal experience plays a role as a form of 'bottom-up' social observation which again corrects faulty public and collective knowledge. One Mass Observer, for example, is keen to address the fact that, contrary to public opinion, family historians are drawn from a diverse demographic:

The view of many people who do not do family history research is that the only people who do it are pensioners who have the time to do it. Whilst from experience I know that this group do make up a high percentage of people who research their family history… they are by no means the only group. There are many other people who do family history research – like me! – that do not fit this stereotype, who are younger and who are fitting it in around full time jobs… (R3765, female, 34, married, Suffolk, research and information officer)

5.7 Sometimes Mass Observers' knowledge of the social world is gleaned from their working lives. For example, in responses to the Family History Directive, Mass Observers who had been or are, registrars of births, marriages and deaths, librarians, a social worker and an academic, noted that their occupational experience had given them valuable expert knowledge on the topic:

To me it is perfectly natural that people should have a wish to know something about their background. Working at the Register Office[3], I came to know some of the family history regulars, and it was possible to share their excitement and pleasure when a missing link was established or a long lost ancestor finally accounted for. (F3409, 61 years old, married, living in a village near Nottingham. Was a part-time Registrar of BMDs for 9 years, formerly a civil servant for 26 years, now retired)
My own experience in archives suggests it has been popular for a long time and numerous archives, especially county archives, have effectively been kept open as a result of people searching for information on their family. (T4345, male, 38, married, Nottingham, academic historian)
Having worked with Kids [sic] who have been in the care system, it's important to make sure that they know enough about their background to inform their present. This is also important for children who are adopted who need to know about their health history as well as the type of family they came from. (M3469, female, 45, married, Edinburgh, head of safeguarding)

5.8 A very few Mass Observers set out to document social life around them in a more systematic fashion, and had carried out what we might understand as social research, in order to be able to answer the Directive prompts fully:

In order to write this piece (which is my first for MO) I have spoken to my mother and brother who are carrying out research into my mum's side of the family history, spoken to one of my friends who used to manage the local studies archive at Manchester library, spoken to a couple of my colleagues who are researching their own family histories. (D4361, no biographical details given)

However, carrying out specific research in this manner was rare.

5.9 Mass Observers also write about the relationship of what they writing to what other Mass Observers are producing: many then imagine and negotiate their own responses in relation to what they imagine is, or could be, being written by other Mass Observers (and non-Mass Observers) in response to a Directive. They reflect upon what others might have written, and how their own responses might be unique, distinctive, or indeed, typical and mundane. Often accounts are presented as being typical or being distinctive. For example, one Mass Observer presents his disinterest in family history, but then claims that this perspective is not likely to hold true for many others, given the widespread popularity of family history research:

Being one of those oddities having little interest in researching my ancestry, I am as perplexed as anyone as to why this pastime has taken off in the way it has… Having written what I have, I also acknowledge that thousands, perhaps millions, have different thoughts on the subject and derive great interest, not to say pleasure, from this hobby. (R1418, male, 86, widower, Derby, retired decorator)

5.10 Here the writer presents his attitude to family history as individual and distinctive, even idiosyncratic. But his very lack of interest in family history is given meaning by the way that it is framed in relation to the wider social context, where he understands family history to be popular. Therefore the personal experience which is recounted here is only given meaning because it is presented alongside social observation. He writes reflexively here about the 'mismatch' between his own personal experience and his social observations, allowing him to draw out and reflect upon the distinctiveness of his experience and knowledge.

5.11 However, it was more common for Mass Observers to describe their experience of being a family historian as a 'typical' case. Writing about her introduction to family history, one Mass Observer commented: 'As with many people, it was an old photograph which started it' (W2244, female, 79, married, Northern hamlet, teacher/careers adviser). Here, this Mass Observer makes clear that what is interesting here is not so much her own experience, but the fact that her own experience is illustrative of many others' experiences: her example is presented as being valuable here because it is 'typical', rather than because it is an interesting story in its own right. Again, here, we can see that personal experience and social observation go hand in hand; what seems mundane and unremarkable achieves significance because it is a typical case. Personal experience is harnessed here as a form of social observation; an individual account becomes illustrative of a wider social phenomenon. Mass Observers then do not simply present their experiences, or the experiences of others, or what they have observed; they consider how their own social observations, or self-observations, contribute towards this 'alternative historical record', as Sheridan puts it.

5.12 One Mass Observer commented critically on the wording of the Directive itself: 'I am – as so often with MO directives – worried about some of the questions asked. I can have opinions about the questions suggested… [but] I cannot see that my views are anything more than my individual opinion…' (B2710, male, married, Newcastle upon Tyne, retired clergyman). Again here, similarly to the examples given earlier, we can see the role and purpose of the Mass Observer being rehearsed and negotiated on paper, before the full response to the Directive is given. But what is particularly interesting here is what worries this Mass Observer so much. The concern seems to centre less on the choice of topic and theme, and more on the kind of response which is required to answer the questions which are posed: B2710 is uncomfortable with supplying his views, since these represent nothing more than 'individual opinion'. It is unclear from this short comment what an appropriately worded Directive might look like, although it is perhaps likely to request facts rather than opinions. What is clear, though, is that this Mass Observer has reservations about answering many of the Directives, given he questions the worth of the information and knowledge which is being requested, because it is so subjective. This concern reflects a degree of ambiguity and slippage between the Mass Observation writer's role as social observer, and as chronicler of personal and subjective experience.

5.13 Mass Observers are then engaged in more than writing the self: they are also reporters and field workers, gathering information to pass on to researchers in the present and the future in order to document social life (Bloome et al 1993). They both observe themselves, and observe others as part of their 'dual vision'. We have also seen how in responses to the Family History Directive Mass Observers carefully relate their own personal experiences with family history to wider social experience. Here Mass Observers both note where they feel their opinions and understandings of the role of family history match, or do not match, the understandings and experiences of others in the family and wider social networks. The strength and value of Mass Observation thus lies not only in the detailed and revealing responses of individual writers, but in the ways in which Mass Observers harness and link personal experience to the experiences of others in their familial, social and professional networks, and wider society, to document, and indeed, to explain, the social world.


6.1 To conclude, I must begin by noting that not all Mass Observers provide intimate, rich, highly contextualized accounts of social life. As I outlined at the outset of this article, Mass Observation responses to Directive vary greatly in length, degree of engagement, detail and reflexivity. That notwithstanding, I would argue that the features I have identified are nevertheless characteristic of Mass Observation as a genre.

6.2 As a genre, Mass Observation is valuable for sociologists for a number of reasons. The first is that Mass Observation is highly collaborative research, where meanings are negotiated and co-produced. As I have shown, Mass Observation writers are highly invested in the Project, which often leads to rich, detailed data which shows the very real engagement of Mass Observers with the themes of the Directive. Simply put, this high level of investment results in some very high quality data. The second key feature which makes the Mass Observation genre attractive is the high degree of contextualization. As we have seen, Mass Observers are writing for posterity. This sense of writing for the future prompts many not only to explain their social location, but to account for its role in influencing their perspectives, attitudes and dispositions. What is interesting here is not only what the social background of Mass Observers is, but the ways in which Mass Observers reflexively consider what role their social location plays in shaping their experiences and understanding. The third key feature which makes Mass Observation distinctive and valuable for sociologists is the ways in which the purpose of the MOP to tell a social history based on the experiences and understandings of 'ordinary people' facilitates Mass Observers to write from multiple vantage points, as individuals, as family members, as members of particular social networks, and so on, lending breadth to our understanding of social phenomena.

6.3 Finally, Mass Observation offers considerable sociological knowledge and insight because, uniquely, it facilitates what I have called 'dual vision'. Mass Observers play two roles, commenting on and documenting social life more broadly on the one hand, and on the other, documenting personal experiences. They are then both the observers and the self-observed. This exploration of personal experience, alongside 'bearing witness' to the experience of others, means that personal experience is linked to social observation in a way which facilitates reflexivity. This link between experience and social observation generates valuable sociological knowledge and insights about the distinctiveness or representativeness of different sets of social experiences and knowledge.


1I wish to acknowledge the support of the Leverhulme Trust in funding my Early Career Fellowship, 'The cultural status of genealogical research', between 2008-2010.

2Shaw here is referring to the MOP.

3Original phrasing retained.


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