Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self

In a democracy, so Robert Worcester, founder of MORI, tells us, public opinion is king. In 1923 an early political scientist, James Bryce, predicted that a new "stage of democracy would be reached if the will of the majority of the citizens were to be ascertainable at all times". But how is this will to be ascertained? Gathering survey evidence is one method, pioneered by Gallup, which began polling in Britain in 1937. Mass Observation, also founded in 1937 - beginning with a letter and a poem published in the New Statesman - by the sociologists Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge, is another.

The study of public opinion should not, so Harrisson and Madge believed, be equated with the quantitative, or with arid statistics. Instead, it should endeavour to discover what people really thought, their motives as well as their behaviour. Unlike Gallup, Mass Observation relied upon volunteers, some of whom kept daily diaries, running in total to roughly a million pages, describing their activities, their opinions, and even their dreams. The aim for Harrisson and Madge was nothing less than an anthropology of the British people.

James Hinton, a former professor of history at Warwick University, uses nine of the diaries as a window into the social history of the 1940s. He appreciates that Mass Observation's methods, in contrast to those of Gallup, were hardly scientific. Those prepared to undergo the dis­cipline of keeping a diary, and, even more, to show it to others, were in no way a representative sample of the population.

The volunteers, recruited through adverts in newspapers and magazines, were disproportionately situated among a segment of the middle class - clerks and schoolteachers - and working women. Few were manual workers. They represented an aristocracy of the articulate. And, as Hinton readily concedes, fragmentary evidence from the diaries "can be used to lend plausibility to any proposition one cares to advance". They have been used to suggest both that the war undermined religious belief and that it strengthened it.

Harrisson and Madge, unlike Gallup, had an agenda of their own. They wanted to give the people a collective voice in public affairs. One cannot suppress the cynical thought that part of their motivation was to show that public opinion was more in favour of change, more hostile to the Chamberlain government, than Gallup was suggesting.

Nevertheless, Hinton believes that what he calls "eavesdropping on a conversation", the study of individual lives, even if unrepresentative, can assist in the never-ending process of historical revision. For none of the diarists was a "creature of habit unthinkingly reproducing received cultural norms". All were reflective; all provide valuable grist to the historian's mill.

The standard account of popular attitudes during the Second World War sees it as a period of social cohesion, "a seemingly irresistible foil", in Hinton's words, "to the supposed selfish individualism of our own times". It was an era in which, to quote A J P Taylor, the British people "came of age", deference was undermined and the active citizen was born. It was indeed the active citizen who supposedly gave Attlee his landslide majority in 1945.

The nine lives studied by Hinton cast doubt on this somewhat starry-eyed view. For, instead of embracing active citizenship, they retreated into private life, seeking to preserve it "against the relentless disruption of war - evacuation, military and industrial conscription". This retreat was particularly marked among the female diarists, who sought relief from unfulfilling marriages in religion and sexual flirtations.

The war, Hinton believes, was at least as important as the 1960s in the emancipation of women, which was perhaps the most significant social change of the postwar era. The personal was indeed to become the political long before the 1960s, and this was an important stage in the humanisation of Britain. For, as Virginia Woolf had noticed, the tyrannies and brutalities of the public world are inseparably connected with those of the private.

Study of these nine lives serves, therefore, to dissolve the standard contrast between the active citizen of the 1940s and her individualistic successors of the 1960s and, paradoxically, to undermine the bold agenda postulated by Harrisson and Madge. Perhaps Matthew Walton, a reform-minded schoolteacher, and his wife, Bertha, disillusioned by the failure of the Popular Front and finding their satisfaction in a democratic and companionate marriage, were symbolic. The shift during the war from the political activism of the 1930s to more private activities may, Hinton believes, "be emblematic of the broader shifts occurring in the culture of the British left between the 1930s and the 1950s". The war in the west, after all, was "won by the forces of capitalist restoration, not by revolutionary popular upheaval".

Judging by this interpretation, the political changes of 1945 were less the result of an upsurge than of an exhausted population "settling (at best) for the security offered by social democracy". Progress occurred, not through realisation of the revolutionary dreams of the 1930s, but through the human fellowship fostered by domestic activities.

Mass Observation faded after the war. It had been, as the Australian political scientist Murray Goot has noticed, "a reaction to a sense that working people were being ignored; the election of a Labour government in 1945 may have changed that". It did not succeed in its aim of achieving a scientific anthropology of the British people. Perhaps such an anthropology is simply not possible. But it did provide the raw material from which history is written, stimulating an interest in popular culture and oral history that was to bear fruit with the New Left in the 1960s. Harrisson and Madge were pioneers in encouraging the British people to speak for themselves.

Hinton describes Nine Wartime Lives as "an experiment in historiography". The life stories are moving and beautifully described. They serve to provoke questions rather than resolve them, but are none the worse for that. Nine Wartime Lives not only vindicates history as a humane discipline, but also casts a great deal of light on Theodore Zeldin's gnomic utterance that forms the epigraph to the book: "To say that the ways of man are mysterious is to make a scientific, not a religious statement."

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. He is the author of “The New British Constitution" (Hart, £17.95)

Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self
James Hinton
Oxford University Press, 254 pages, £25


Mass Observation and the New Statesman

Mass Observation began on 30 January 1937, when the painter and film-maker Humphrey Jennings and the poet and journalist Charles Madge published a letter in the New Statesman. In the wake of the Edward VII abdication crisis, they were not convinced that the verdict of the papers and
the BBC truly reflected the views of British people.

Their letter announced an "anthropology at home . . . a science of ourselves" and requested that volunteers collect observations of everyday life, right down to the minutiae: "Behaviour of people at war memorials . . . Shouts and gestures of motorists . . . Anthropology of football pools . . . Beards, armpits, eyebrows . . . Female taboos about eating."

Coincidentally, the same page of the NS carried a poem by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson (in picture, on the right, with Madge), who was conducting a study of the British. Reading the letter, he saw that their ideals were related, and so he contacted Madge and Jennings. In a month, the two projects were merged under one banner: Mass Observation.

Sebastian Gillies

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven