Mass-Observation and the Praxis of Print

Andrea Hasenbank


The Mass-Observation project was launched in England, 1937. Between the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI, a group of young intellectuals proposed the idea of a self-focused anthropology through which participants could explore the reaction to crisis of ordinary Britons and assemble a view of the everyday lives of ‘the people’ for record and study. This project, the Mass-Observation project, embarked in earnest in January 1937 and rose to cultural prominence through the Second World War. Mass-Observation actively engaged participants, known as ‘Observers,’ as part of embedded teams and as individual writers who contributed diaries and responses to directives. From 1949, the organization began to focus on commercial interests and consumer data (Sheridan, Street, and Bloome 37; Mass Observation Online n. pag.). As a documenter of social history, Mass-Observation fell into a period of decline before re-launching in 1981. The project continues to attract new participants and has opened up its archives, held at the University of Sussex, to historians, literary scholars and critics (Mass Observation Archive n. pag.).

The first stage of Mass-Observation took its outlook from the preoccupations of its three founders: Charles Madge, a poet and journalist, Humphrey Jennings, a documentary filmmaker, and Tom Harrisson, a writer and amateur anthropologist. Through their influence, Mass-Observation struggled to find an orientation between politics, poetics and science, drawing on Marxist ideas of class, Freudian ideas of dreamwork and symbol, and practices of observation and data-gathering from the then new field of anthropology. These discourses pull unevenly within the project – the scientific rigor of its observational practices is particularly suspect, and historians of labour and social formations have also called into question the undertheorization of issues of class and power differentials between the project directors, the Observers and the observed. Furthermore, the project’s increasing alignment with commercial interests and state surveillance from 1949 onward significantly colour the critical assessment of its earlier utopic vision. These discrepancies have bearing for literary historians on a consideration of Mass-Observation’s production of texts, as well as its claims to represent the material lives of ordinary Britons on the page and in the public sphere.

Centrally, this article is concerned with how Mass-Observation engages with the materiality of lived experience through print institutions and practices of writing. Mass-Observation’s collective project of transformation through knowledge rests on the work of its individual writers, whose private reflections are telescoped through the organization’s commitment to print and to public commentary. Mass-Observation’s initial call to action is critical of the perceived splintering of the working class in the face of political and economic crisis and their absence from existing public discourse. Madge and Harrisson argue that the working class is not cohesive in terms of work, position, attitudes, beliefs or activities; the project envisions documenting these disparities in total with the aim of rebuilding a sense of collectivity out of an active engagement within the project. Mass-Observation configures observing and reporting very clearly as labour, taking on even “the drab and sordid features of industrial life” (Madge and Harrisson 29). In doing so, the project takes up acts of textual production as provocation to social response, positioning itself as a potential conduit for transforming alienated experience into meaningful public life. However, neither the rhetoric of labour within the project nor the founders’ explicit consideration of class in the Marxist tradition support a conception of the project’s aim as one of fostering revolutionary consciousness. Rather, Mass-Observation’s savvy use of print enterprise, particularly its intersection with Penguin in the 1930s and 1940s, to sustain its research and public campaigning activities reveals a stronger technocratic impulse. In striving to make the mass knowable, Mass-Observation defuses its revolutionary potential through a creative praxis reliant on individual rather than class reflection.

Print and Praxis

Marx’s conception of social man contemplates the relationship between labour and the social whole: through his work, man “produces himself not only intellectually, as in consciousness, but also actively in a real sense and sees himself in a world he made” (64). In Marxist thought, social labour wears the guise of praxis whereby theory is synthesized with conscious activity as a foundation for social and political change. Linguistically, praxis has a performative component such that speech (or writing) is itself a species of willed action. Mass-Observation purports to consider reflection and observation as praxis; however, the actual work of participants is in the interpretive activity of writing and reading. By navigating social life through writing, participants move from the position of the spectator to that of Observer and respondent. It is important to distinguish between print and manuscript modes of engagement within the project: where Mass-Observation’s print enterprise represents public space as characterized by interconnected institutions, the individual Observer’s writing (in diary, letter, and directive forms) traces one particular trajectory through that space and marks her manipulation of meaning.

By considering writing as a form of praxis, Mass-Observation offers itself as a solution to modern alienation, whereby the project is figured as an agent for transforming atomized individual experience into a meaningful, collective understanding. In this struggle to find ways of speaking across class divisions, some of Mass-Observation’s most meaningful observations probe the uses of language within social life, not least of which is the role of language within its own project. In an appendix to the Mass Observation report First Year’s Work, Bronislaw Malinowski, a professor of anthropology, offers an assessment of the project’s foundational use of language: “Mass-Observation largely depends for its validity on the use of words and verbal statements … Mass-Observation is directed by linguistic instructions; it receives its material primarily in the form of written statements” (105-6). In keeping with a conception of writing as labour, language is the primary “tool, document, and social reality” of Mass-Observation (106n1) yet exceeds definition as a mere medium.

Although Mass-Observation cites Marxist thought as a founding principle, it is in terms of creative capacity rather than class ideology that the project becomes philosophically engaging. The division between creative practice and social practice collapses in many ways: in the analysis of Raymond Williams, the creative seems to have particular aesthetic connotations. With reference to the arts and narrative literature in particular, the creative literary process is one of distilling social relations into characterizations; Williams sees this process as one of “active reproduction” of social relationships (209). The work of the Observers might be read as an ongoing self-creation or self-characterization realized in the form of their responses to Mass-Observation; writing, for Williams, “is always in some sense self-composition and social composition” (211). The social and indeed revolutionary potential of the project lies in its appeal to the creative process, but in many ways, it remains only potential. Mass-Observation fails to transcend the limitations of individual reflection by translating these into shared, class knowledge. The project remains overly defined by its directives and by its commitment to personal experience; in this focus on the individual Observer, it fails to live up to the ideal of print as a form of social organization rather than an “intermediate communicative substance” (Williams 159). By refusing truly unbounded acts of writing and observation among its Observers, the generative potential of the Mass-Observation project ultimately dissipates.

Crisis and Consciousness

Mass-Observation was conceived explicitly in response to crisis. The organization’s earliest materials, the pamphlet Mass-Observation and the survey collection May the Twelfth, identify the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George V as interruptions in the functioning of “institutions which [have] been accepted as part of the course of nature” (Madge and Harrisson 9). As characterized by Mass-Observation’s founders, revelation of the artificiality of tradition and practice shocked the public into a new self-awareness. Mere months later, in the special report Britain, Mass-Observation took on a much more pointed tone against the increasingly antagonistic Munich Pact. Madge and Harrisson figured the king’s abdication and the prime minister’s policy of appeasement as moments of “CRISIS” that “suddenly arrive to threaten the security of our ordinary lives” (MO, Britain 23). Here, the authors frame crisis in generic terms, as issues of importance within a realm of politics and exchange remote from the lives of ordinary people and appearing to them as abstractions inflated by the media (MO, Britain 25-6). However, as a whole, the Mass-Observation project evinces a much more nuanced consideration of crisis as a systemic failing, implicated in the apparent divide between the individual and society.

In many ways, Mass-Observation’s goal of addressing the “unknown mass,” revealed by political disruption, is one of raising consciousness in the face of the historical crisis of capitalism (Madge and Harrisson 10). The focal events of economic depression and royal abdication are mere signals to the growing untenability of the capitalist system; the apparent arbitrariness of political structures laid bare by conjunctural crisis is the target of the project’s collective work. Mass-Observation particularly takes up the growth of the proletariat in its focus on “the untrained man in the street” (Madge and Harrisson 10). Mass-Observation’s initial pamphlet closely follows Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto: the authors build from a historical analysis of social conditions and thought before identifying their key agent of change and initiating a call to action. Marx identifies the growth of the working class brought forth by the advance of modern industry, brought into association and colliding with the bourgeoisie in “revolutionary combination” (169). Madge and Harrisson also parse the development of the working class as part of modernity, focusing on the “literate mass” as the necessary element in the Mass-Observation project (17-18). They construct a progressivist narrative in which science takes the place of revolution. In their analysis, the “prolongation of industrialism” leads to a “third type” of working man, one who, in rising above the ignorant brutality of the lumpenproletariat and the misguided religiosity of the self-disciplined ‘moral’ poor, instead looks for rational solution to systemic imbalance “in terms of science rather than of religion” (Madge and Harrisson 18).[1] This orientation is identified by critics, such as Mike Savage, as the beginning of a “technocratic ethos” (“Affluence” 473). This growing body of workers, “accessible to the persuasion of words written and spoken” by virtue of modern education and mass communication (Madge and Harrisson 19), is sought out by the authors in their attempt to transform social discourse and give voice to the masses.

Organizing and Observing

Madge and Harrisson trace a history of scientific thought that culminates in the disciplines of psychology, anthropology and sociology, work that “has made such a project as [this] thinkable” (35). Mass-Observation harvests the fields of social science for inspiration and methodology, but the idealized vision of pure science is never fully interrogated as a positivist construction with its own potential for shaping and controlling social relationships. To this end, the initial pamphlet already sets up the major preoccupations – and criticisms – of Mass-Observation through the wartime period. Mass-Observation took a dual approach to its research work wherein participants engaged through various forms of writing that were then assembled and presented by the central organization (headed primarily by Madge). Observers fall into two categories: paid investigators and unpaid volunteer writers. Harrisson led the Worktown project in which paid investigators participated in large field studies within the northern industrial town of Bolton (Mass Observation Archive, “Original Mass-Observation Project”; Sheridan, Street, and Bloome 32).[2] This arm more closely emulates the anthropological dynamic where it is ‘us’ who observe ‘them’ – a structure fraught with classist and racist overtones, observed by some critics.[3]

The volunteer panel led by Madge and Jennings generated most of the material for Mass-Observation’s work over a more extended period of time (Sheridan, Street, and Bloome 35). Volunteers were recruited to submit material in three forms: day-surveys (recording activities and responses to a particular event), diaries and directives (guided topics issued to volunteers from Mass-Observation). Blending participation, observation and directed writing, participants engaged in free-form documentation of their everyday lives and experiences, considering and shaping these experiences through their writing. These responses were submitted anonymously but were identifiable by markers of location, sex, age and occupation to synthesize materials and produce publishable discussion of emergent issues. With this organizational aim, participants also worked within a discursive framework structured by Mass-Observation, whose directives manifest particular interests related to wartime mobilization and social demobilization, including topics ranging from rationing, wartime occupations, blackouts and responses to national events, housing, dancing, drinking habits and entertainments. Savage has addressed the appeal of Mass-Observation to participants drawn to its attempts at rationalizing social life (“Affluence” 471). Emphasizing the audience rather than the Mass-Observation’s leaders, Savage has found the attitudes of those who contributed to the project as diarists, day reporters, directive writers and paid observers (and as buyers and readers of Mass-Observation’s print publications) to be more crucial to interpreting Mass-Observation’s data collection as ‘raw material’ for analyzing British social and cultural life than the intentions of its founders. Focusing on the directive responses in particular, Savage argues that contributors, mainly from the middle classes, were drawn to Mass-Observation less out of a sense of political affiliation than from a commitment to forging an identity as a “kind of technical, ‘social scientific’ intellectual” (Identities 60). The revolutionary potential Madge, Jennings and Harrisson envisioned is channeled more into rationalization than utopianism as participants sought not collective merging but a measured rethinking of the social relationships of culture and class on technocratic lines.

The potential of the project’s early mode of organization is interesting to consider as part of the proposed transition of Mass-Observation from a research body into a “Mass-Movement” (Madge and Harrisson 46). Here, the founders begin to look toward an international movement, parallel to the reach of imperialism in the mature stage of capitalism. Throughout the initial Mass-Observation pamphlet, Madge and Harrisson present a unified voice, speaking to the “common need” (46) for knowledge that the organization aims to meet; however, when the implications of that knowledge are raised, the visions of each author diverge sharply. Harrisson, the self-taught anthropologist, takes the philosophic view that the total range of knowledge brought to light by the project will set “the present miserable conflicts of dogmatic faiths” into a new, relativistic synthesis (47). Madge, the journalist and poet, looks to the collection of facts as a social resource that will emerge as “part of a general deflection of emphasis from individual to collective effort” (48). However, this accumulative approach lacks the utopic sense of Harrisson’s vision – Madge retains the belief that “it is each man’s job to find his own salvation as best he can” (48). By attempting to bring individual reflection into social life, Mass-Observation curiously tries to mobilize mass consciousness in terms that are equally critical of mobilization. As observed by Malinowski, “An organisation which would make the masses – now so easily mobilised into hysterical action – better informed, more intelligent, and better able to translate their opinion into effective and expressive acts … would, in my opinion, be a powerful stabilising force” (MO, First Year’s Work 109). Indeed, the directors of Mass-Observation seem to view the creative work of writing and the powerful potential for identification with a collective body as necessary outlets for highly charged social energy; however, these consequences are not the same as a mass transfer of power. Whereas the key intervention of Mass-Observation is its view of the mass as both the object and vehicle of study, the project remains reluctant to incorporate entirely unbounded forms of writing and speech into its methodologies. Instead, the project retains a focus on individual writers and private observation, managed by singular directives. The ‘mass’ of Mass-Observation is  carefully calibrated and channeled.

A clear tension emerges between practices of observing and experiences of being observed at the core of the Mass-Observation project. This ongoing monitoring of behaviour, taken to a collective level, is characteristic of Anthony Giddens’s conception of reflexive modernity.[4] By virtue of widespread technical advances and the accessibility of new forms of knowledge by the general population – Mass-Observation’s “literate mass” – both public and private life fall into a kind of feedback loop wherein “social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thereby constitutively altering their character” (Giddens 38). In this light, modern societies are formed by constant revision rather than an appetite for novelty; however, perpetual reflection also means that knowledge must be held in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Observation is not mere activity but a method that restructures its subjects, subjects who “[have] learned to think sociologically” (Giddens 43). Observers internalize the potential for minute calibrations of information and position. Savage argues that, engaged in activities of self-evaluation and within the grip of expanding state institutions, powerful new kinds of middle-class “identities were generated, ones which broke from old notions of ‘status’ and ‘gentility’ and which emphasised instead the technocratic and scientific capacities of the middle class, and hence saw them as key parts of an efficient and modernising nation” (“Affluence” 458). During this period, the “creeping rise of the social science apparatus” (Savage, Identities 10), especially dominant in the Mass-Observation model, becomes instituted as a formalized version of modern reflexivity.

Looking ahead to some of Mass-Observation’s research concentrations, reflection also appears as a state practice constitutive of biopower, theorized by Foucault, Hardt and Negri, among others. For example, the use of statistics combines method and application as a means of evaluating the population while also reinscribing state power and social organization by enabling coordinated administrative control. While acting as a para-state organization, Mass-Observation emulates centralized administrative practices and promulgates reflexive practices among its participants. This is explicit in how the project was conceived: Madge and Harrisson are clear that, as Mass-Observation was established, “the immediate problem [was] to mobilise a numerous and representative corps of Observers, and to equip and maintain an efficient central organisation, in touch with all other relevant research bodies, however different their methods” (45). However, in its early stages, participants’ self-observation served only to structure the project itself, connecting consciousness to public engagement; it was not until wartime mobilization, after 1939, that Mass-Observation’s work began to intersect more directly with state power and commercial influences.

Print and the Public

Mass-Observation’s scheme for social transformation through self-knowledge entered Britain’s public consciousness by way of the organization’s extensive and strategic use of print. Madge, Harrisson and Jennings made contact in the press before coming together in person; the abdication crisis spilled over into the letters section of the New Statesman and Nation and a letter by Madge was coincidentally printed next to a poem by Jennings on January 2, 1937 (Hubble 172-73; Sheridan, Street, and Bloome 22-24). This venue is particularly indicative of the shape the project would come to take and its projected participants. The New Statesman, a London weekly founded by Beatrice and Sidney Webb in 1913, was committed to the reformist social democracy of the Fabian Society and linked very strongly to the Labour Party. By the 1930s, after a series of mergers, the editorial position became even more strongly leftist and anti-fascist even as the paper’s circulation jumped from 13,000 to 70,000 readers (Smith 271-72; Orlando n. pag.).[5] The paper remained viable ground for the germination of the Mass-Observation project; in its first year, it gathered over two million words from almost 600 contributors with most recruited through the New Statesman (Hinton n. pag.). Mass-Observation’s use of the newspaper as a public space for connection is an important starting point for understanding the role of print within the project. Benedict Anderson’s examination of the connection between print and capitalism in Imagined Communities argues that the communities made imaginable on the page are foundational to modernity in supplanting earlier forms of knowledge and modes of association.

Anderson usefully defines print-capitalism as the “half-fortuitous, but explosive, interaction between a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human linguistic diversity” (42-43). Together, these modes enabled new conceptions of simultaneity and community to become practicable by making a fixed text available to a wide audience in the same moment. The fixity of print also gave rise to new ideas of stability in language and new claims on authority in knowledge. This intellectual history is entwined with the technological history of print, and in many ways, the successive production of text objects and the ends served by these materials inform each other. In discussing text objects, it is impossible to sidestep the entanglement of print technology as a specifically capitalist mode of production, a microcosm of capitalism’s characteristic capacity for repetition, circulation and reproduction. As Anderson puts it, “print knowledge lived by reproducibility and dissemination” (37). Textual scholars might consider tracing the life of such knowledge to be a function of print history; by filtering a particular work through its networks of production, circulation and response, we can better use the self-understandings of agents at every stage to enhance our understanding of the text’s role in public discourse and private experience. However, this dissemination of knowledge evades restriction and begins to undo the division upon which capitalism also rests; the Mass-Observation project probes the growing consciousness that leads the masses to claim access to the goods and benefits of capitalism for themselves while looking toward new modes of relating in society.

Anderson argues for the nation as a uniquely modern concept made possible only through a fundamental and revolutionary change in the way people encountered and thought about the world by which it became “possible to ‘think’ the nation” (22). In particular, the idea of simultaneity as a temporal field of potential in which multiple sequences of action can be unfolding at once is essential to imagining the connections through which readers make meaning out of forms such as the novel or the newspaper. Much in the same way, a reader can imagine connections between a set of characters – while also recognizing that events and motivations continue to unfold whether or not they are depicted directly in the plot – as can a person imagine herself to be a part of a larger community with a diverse history unfolding whether or not she is aware of those specific activities. The possibility of sharing simultaneous space is at the heart of the conception of the nation as an imagined community. Mass-Observation steps beyond imaginary bonds in seeking to overlay community in the abstract with material experience based on shared practices of observation and reflection.

The disjointed decline of these worldviews is both spurred on by and manifested in social and scientific discovery, rapid development in communications technologies and the economic changes of ascendant capitalism. Anderson extends his textual analogy by placing the newspaper at the crossroads between these shifts, representing imagined linkages both internally, between news stories and events in distant places, and externally, as a commodity that is mass-produced, widely circulated and consumed by a new public, more or less concurrently. Print-capitalism is the field on which the core economic, political and social relationships of the lingering feudal order began to reform themselves in the minds and experiences of modern men and women, reconfiguring them as citizens and nationals. Reaching past the entrenchment of liberal citizenship to probe the potential of its collapse, Mass-Observation interrogates the tremulous effects of late capital, represented by new party alignments, fraternal groups and allegiances to product and brand, emergent in the reflections of its Observers: “With these modern techniques and in a language distinctly different from that of the House of Commons, new and potentially powerful groupings are being formed, almost unnoted, through the structure of English society” (MO, Britain 244). Whereas Anderson explores the opportunity print-capitalism offered for the creation of new public discourses and new relationships enabled by the nation, Mass-Observation is pessimistic about the continued connection of the ‘nation’ to the affairs and structures of state (MO, Britain 246). The disruption of accepted relationships by crisis subsequently made it possible for the founders of Mass-Observation to think of their own project as an extension of the materials of modernity – and possibly as an end to the nation as an imaginative and emotional construct.

Penguins and Paratext

Particularly in its early stages, Mass-Observation actively produced materials even as it collected them, using its directives to create collections of responses to such events as King George V's coronation (May the Twelfth [1937]), London during the Blitz (War Begins at Home [1940]), rationing (Clothes Rationing Survey [1941]), support for the war industry (Home Propaganda [c. 1941]) and Council housing (People’s Homes [1943]). The project of mass-organization was intended to have its parallel in a programme of mass-publicity achieved through a series of publications under a Mass-Observation imprint (Madge and Harrisson 41). This series faded from focus as the project advanced a more state-oriented research agenda. Although the initial pamphlet does bear the indication “Mass-Observation Series: Number One,” Madge and Harrisson’s envisioned series of collective books organized around particular issues and directives, as well as a Mass-Observation library of cheap editions of scientific works and a monthly bulletin intended to be “an experiment in co-operative newspaper making” (41), were not pursued. Instead, Mass-Observation tapped into an existing network of populist printers and publishers, such as Penguin and Victor Gollancz, with a ready-made audience full of observations on British society.

Mass-Observation’s intersecting interests with Penguin have been noted in histories of the publisher, but this connection has not been analyzed to any depth. Britain by Mass-Observation was published as a ‘Penguin Special’ in January 1939. Penguin began operations in August 1935 (Lewis 100), nearly the same historical moment as Mass-Observation. The publisher aimed particularly at the expanding middle classes who then possessed the disposable income for books and newspapers (Lewis 71-72) and found popular success with the seeming emergence of an entirely new reading public. Penguin founder Allen Lane’s audience was the same ‘literate mass’ that was targeted by Madge and Harrisson and served by railway bookstalls and newsstands; this readership linked his literary mandate to modern conditions of urbanity and mass travel as well as a growing appetite for accessible reading material. Historian Nicholas Joicey has attempted to assess the intellectual and political significance of Penguin to British culture and society, taking into account the publisher’s popular appeal and market considerations. Setting himself apart from the widely available cheap reprints of classic literature in hardcover and paperback – pirated or not – and from mass-produced genre fiction (romances, westerns, thrillers, etc.), Lane aimed to produce “cheap reprints of respectable work still in copyright” while also attracting new original writers (Joicey 27). Though far from the first publisher to deal in cheap print commodities, Penguin’s model made key distinctions in terms of content, genre and legality, coming to represent “the first large-scale, financially successful penetration of a paper-covered series into the wider and more conservative world of cloth-covered books” (MO, “Penguin World” 59). With the success of this publication model, Penguin became uniquely associated with the surge in mass print in interwar British society.

Penguin Specials, launched as a separate series in November 1937, were “explicitly designed both to promote original work and to alter public opinion” (Joicey 31), taking advantage of the paperback form’s compressed production schedule and lower prices to circulate timely commentary on public issues. In terms of outlook and audience, the series is comparable to Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, also initiated in 1937. The Specials “revitalized the political pamphlet” (Joicey 29) with a focused print strategy. Penguin released highly topical titles with frequent revisions to existing titles and an expanding catalogue in response to new political developments. A total of 35 Specials were published between November 1937 and the outbreak of war in September 1939 (WorldCat n. pag.). Penguin’s gambit was a successful one: through the 1930s and 1940s, Specials “were printed and published at speed, and often went on to sell a quarter of a million copies or more” (Lewis 135). Indeed, the overwhelming success of the Specials led to a larger paper ration award in 1940, assuring Penguin’s dominance of wartime print (Joicey 31). Lane’s biographer Jeremy Lewis describes this as a “propagandist coup” for the left (137), though a review of the titles produced by Penguin shows that the series was open to more divergent views than the titles put out by the Left Book Club (MO, Britain end matter).

As a print object, Britain reinforces the preoccupations of both Penguin and Mass-Observation with reaching an indistinct body of people who “want the facts, and … want them in a form that suits the times we live in” (MO, Britain 10). The content of the text is highly reflexive, making explicit reference to the publisher and inviting response and criticism; however, the paratext situates Britain within a larger public context. Gérard Genette in his influential study has identified paratext as a textual threshold, a “zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition, but also of transaction” (2). Commercial transaction is particularly evident in the peritext of an early Penguin publication – the ‘filler material’ and pages of self-advertising that lie between its iconic, striped covers.[6] Following the end of the text of Britain, a message from the publisher appears, switching back into Penguin’s signature typeface (Gill Sans). It emphasizes the special status of the series of “books which do not fit into the usual classified categories” but are “specially written for the series on the urgent topical problems of the day” (MO, Britain end matter). The sense of urgency carries through to the production of the books, which were “rushed through as soon as possible after delivery of the manuscript to us” (MO, Britain end matter).[7] Indeed, the familiar construction of ‘us’ is also significant to the positioning of the series, which is figured as a public conversation among like-minded individuals. The limits of this conversation are suggested by the other titles listed in the peritext. The recent Specials for the end of 1938 include Britain but also two additional titles focused on the appeasement crisis: E. O. Lorimer’s What Hitler Wants and G. J. George’s The Betrayed Czechoslovakia. The inclusion of lists and catalogues was a key innovation of Penguin, whose branded approach to the book trade was intended to create a collection so that “each book helped to sell its companions” (Lewis 90). The transactional markers packaged with Britain – price, coloured cover, purchase lists and advertising space – have discursive bearing for the shared projects of Mass-Observation and Penguin as they strive to reach a mass audience with messages rooted in the circulation of knowledge and class consciousness.[8]

The connection to Penguin extends beyond this early period of Mass-Observation’s publication. Although Penguin only published one more title by Mass-Observation, People in Production (1937), the publisher remained an ally through Mass-Observation’s research and consulting activities.[9] At this later stage, the organization became more strongly allied with the Advertising Service Guild and prolifically published reports on a range of domestic political and commercial issues.[10] From 1946-47, Penguin commissioned Mass-Observation to produce an internal report on readers and potential markets. The report, “Penguin World,” tracks the communicative network of paperbacks in detail with unusual focus on what is often its most tenuous link: the reader. The first section is concerned with the context of reading as well as the possibility of non-reading, including rare moments of reflection by readers themselves on the value of the act of reading and their connection to various forms and genres of print. In this, the report references Mass-Observation’s National Observer Panel as ideal Penguin readers, ordering the factors that influence their reading practices and choices. The top-ranking factors include personal experience, one’s own opinion, opinions of family and friends, books and newspapers (MO, “Penguin World”  25-26), indicating a highly personalized conduit into the public world. The potential of the respondents’ reflexivity gives way to more analytical methods of gauging readership based on tangibles (MO, “Penguin World”  60): sales, subscription lists and demand alone, however, do not capture the same heterogeneity and nuance of the readers’ response and appreciation of both print and public engagement.

Intersecting between the self-styled mandate of Mass-Observation and the market savvy of Penguin, “Penguin World” provides a view of the average Penguin reader that belies some of the assumptions of both organizations’ much-emphasized focus on the masses. It suggests that Penguin readers were largely middle-class rather than members of the trades (artisanal) or working classes. As well, most readers would have had some level of secondary education, echoing the effect of state-sponsored education noted earlier. Significantly, Mass-Observation undercut Penguin’s own claim that it was reaching a new audience of apolitical readers and guiding them leftward; rather, the report suggested that Penguin readers were already five times more likely to vote Labour than non-Penguin readers and that Penguin readers were more likely to be organized (MO, “Penguin World”  51). Regarding the Common Wealth movement that helped propel Attlee’s Labour Party to power in the 1945 general election, Mass-Observation stated that support came “from normal middle and lower middle class people, with little for the upper classes and not many manual workers. In other words from the heart of the Penguin reading public” (MO, “Penguin World”  160). This description also reflects Mass-Observation’s own constitution. Mass-Observation’s focus on publicity and persuasion prefigures linguistic and media-based interpretations of power; however, its posture as a mass upsurge also demands that we consider who actually belongs to the mass it figures and what effect the experience of participation in the project actually had on social awareness and efficacy.

By taking its inspiration from lived experience, Mass-Observation sought to restore the material element to public discourse. Writing is an especially apt example, in that the material of the activity, language, is already given as a social product, and even the most isolated of writing ‘speaks back’ to a community of other writers and readers through its use. At core, Marx’s philosophy presents an individual subject that is always a social being; man is shown to be inextricable from his society. Succinctly, “the expression of [an individual’s] life – even if it does not immediately appear in the form of a communal expression carried out together with others – is therefore an expression and assertion of social life” (Marx 73). The dual structure of Mass-Observation makes it difficult to locate writing activity; although teams of Observers are active in the public sphere, most individual contributors write in the home, figurative of the private sphere. This work depends on the existence of an audience, real or imagined; otherwise, the labour of writing serves only to isolate the writer and making writing a solitary rather than a social activity. The initial call of Mass-Observation sets up its own response: provocatively, participants are drawn into writing as praxis, their creative work generating the possibility of new social relationships. By writing toward a public purpose, apart from the actual content of diaries or directives, self-observation surpasses the boundary around the private sphere so as to make every experience a shared public one.

Mass-Observation’s early appeal to a broad audience of the skilled middle-class workers captured the frustration of a group already uncoupling itself from traditional class hierarchy. By inviting readers to become participants in its experiments with writing and print, the project captured the imagination of a public prepared for self-observation by widespread education and growing state institutionalism. Mass-Observation takes the individual within society as its premise and through its work seeks to understand how the individual’s consciousness comes to constitute a social body, even as practices of surveillance and biopolitical control produce that body as ever more regulated. In the Mass-Observation project, writing turns the productive potential of labour inward, re-working and re-situating the writer. The project’s eagerness to posit itself as a remedy for alienation by offering writing as a method of praxis to its participants is somewhat undercut by its commodification of that work into print publications and consultation services as the project matured. However, for its potential in harnessing print to social praxis, Mass-Observation remains a fascination; that the project did not ultimately bring about revolution does not detract from this. As Mass-Observation probes the crisis of its moment, it leaves a record of thought and engagement reaching toward a future time when its successors may be able to transform abstracted connection into real unity.


Works Cited


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised ed. New York: Verso, 2006. Print.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

Hinton, James. “Mass-Observation (act. 1937–1949).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford UP, September 2009. Web. 20 May 2010.

Hubble, Nick. “The Intermodern Assumption of the Future: William Empson, Charles Madge and Mass-Observation.” Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain. Ed. Kristin Bluemel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009. 171-88. Print.

Joicey, Nicholas. “A Paperback Guide to Progress: Penguin Books 1935–c.1951.” Twentieth Century British History 4.1 (1993): 25-56. Web. 25 May 2010.

Kushner, Tony. We Europeans? Mass-Observation, ‘Race’ and British Identity in the Twentieth Century. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. Print. Studies in European Cultural Transition 25.

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Mass-Observation. “A Report on Penguin World.” London: n.p., 1947. Mass-Observation Online. Web. 15 February 2011

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---. First Year’s Work: 1937-1938. London: Lindsay Drummond, 1938. Print.

---. Home Propaganda: A Report Prepared by Mass-Observation for the Advertising Service Guild. London: Advertising Service Guild, [1941]. Print.

---. War Begins at Home. London: Chatto & Windus, 1940. Print.

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Andrea Hasenbank is a PhD student at the University of Alberta where she is a Doctoral Fellow of both the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Editing Modernism in Canada project. Her research is grounded in the area of print history with a focus on the intersections between print, politics, and propaganda. Her dissertation work will examine labour and leftist pamphlets circulating in Western Canada during the 1930s and 1940s. This project seeks to open a dialogue between literary modernism and pamphleteering print culture to better understand their shared linguistic tactics and common readership. 



[1] Lumpenproletariat is a standard Marxist term for the lowest levels of the working class, used to insultingly indicate a kind of unthinking mass subject.

[2] See also Mass-Observation. The Pub and the People: A Worktown Study (1943). This was the only publication to come out of a planned series on the Worktown project.

[3] See particularly Kushner (2004).

[4] See Beck, Giddens and Lash. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (1994).

[5] The abdication crisis and launch of Mass-Observation came between two of the most notorious incidents in the paper’s history: H.G. Wells’ 1934 interview with Josef Stalin, and editor Kinglsey Martin’s 1938 refusal to publish George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, for fear of its use as anti-socialist propaganda.

[6] For a closer examination of the term peritext and the print apparatus it describes, see Genette (16 and chapter 2 following).

[7] Mass-Observation was also highly conscious of print cycles; Britain, which opens with a discussion of the Munich Pact and public response, concludes by describing the “rapid kaleidoscope of the past few weeks in which the material for this book has been prepared and printed” (MO, Britain 234).

[8] Price, a key aspect of Mass-Observation’s publication goals as well as Penguin’s marketing strategy, is an interesting point of print history that extends beyond the scope of this article. It was and remains critical within the book trade and a source for much wry observation about the worth of literature and the value of knowledge. In relation to working class readerships, perhaps it has been most incisively observed by George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Books v. Cigarettes” parses the pastimes of average English people, readers and smokers all.

[9] Mass-Observation turned instead to a motley group of major leftist publishers during the 1940s, including Gollancz, Art and Technics and Murry (WorldCat).

[10] See, for example, Home Propaganda i-ii.



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