Mass Observation and the Centenary of the First World War

Mass Observation and the Centenary of the First World War

In 2014, at the start of a programme of  First World War centenary commemorative activities in Britain, the Gateways to the First World War team, working with the four other AHRC Engagement Centres, commissioned a Directive on responses to, and the cultural memory of, the war from the social survey organization, Mass Observation.  The Directive proved extremely popular, with 200 people writing about their engagement with commemorative activities, the impact of the war on their own families, their historical knowledge and cultural memory of the war years and its lasting legacies for contemporary Britain.  In this blog post, I want to consider some of these responses, and what they mean for the way that the war is viewed in Britain today.  First though, I will outline the Mass Observation project of which this Directive is a part. The poet Charles Madge, the anthropologist Tom Harrisson and the documentarist Humphrey Jennings established Mass Observation (MO) in 1937 as a means of constructing ‘an anthropology of ourselves’.  In this first incarnation MO drew on a range of research methodologies: as well as advertising for a ‘national panel’ of writers who would respond to regular, open ended questionnaires or ‘Directives’ and submit regular diaries, they recruited a team of ‘Observers’ who would observe the British public in the manner of ethnographic anthropologists, interacting with the society they were studying whilst making careful notes on behavior and beliefs.  In addition they used more traditional methods of data collection such as interviews to build a picture of British life and popular views that more quantitative surveys struggled to access.   As Britain entered the Second...