ESRC: Festival of Social Science: Mass observation reveals minutiae of daily life

Date: 3rd – 7th November 2014

Time: 10.00 – 19.45hrs

Location: Brighton

What did a 1930s housewife have in her larder? How did a 1940s office worker spend their lunch hour? What clothes were hanging in a 1950s teenagers’ wardrobe? Extraordinarily detailed answers to these questions can be found among a unique collection of material on everyday life housed in the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) at the University of Sussex. “Within hundreds of boxes dating back to 1937, you will find responses to ordinary peoples thoughts, feelings and observations;  the small everyday details of their lives and the people around them,” says MOA’s Project Officer, Kirsty Pattrick. “It’s the minutiae of day to day life which people find so enthralling.”

Members of the public can learn more about the rich collection of material held by the Mass Observation Archive and their more current research work at four events held in Brighton from 3-7 November. But, come ready to be surprised, Ms Pattrick warns. “Since the 1930s we have guaranteed our volunteer contributors anonymity. So, whether it’s prisoners detailing one day in their lives in 2014 or someone describing how they felt at the exact moment war was declared in 1939, they certainly don’t hold back.”

At the workshops, organised as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science, participants will be able to handle original documents from the MOA. Holding the boxes, they can very literally lift the lid on voices, often unheard, from recent history. “What they’ll find,” says Ms Pattrick, “is that the power really is in the detail.”

When Mass Observation began, volunteers returned written answers to researcher questions ranging from what was on their mantelpiece to their views on the politics of the day. During the 1930s until the early 1950s, volunteers continued to send answers to specific questions, as well as occasional one-day diaries. Diaries were completed on specific days – for example, George VI’s Coronation on 12 May 1937 – but then more generally throughout the war.  Over 3000 people contributed diaries or answered research questions for Mass Observation between 1937 and 1967, although no more than 500 people were ever writing at one time. Some wrote for just one month or two, others for years, even decades.

Revived in 1981, Mass Observation now has more than 500 volunteer writers aged 16 to mid-80s who write anonymously in answer to specific questions posed by them on subjects such as the Scottish Referendum, siblings and dreams . Wider participation is encouraged through events such as their annual ‘12 May Day Diary’, a project which invites people of all ages to write about their day – everything from when they wake to when they go to sleep.

“It’s the everyday detail that makes it so powerful,” Ms Pattrick insists. “It’s incredibly rich; peoples’ experiences and thoughts, their hopes and fears. Just as our visitors are enthralled to read about the drinking habits and conversations of people in a 1940’s pub, we can equally imagine the interest people will have in 100 years’ time of what our lives are like now.”

For further information contact:

·         Kirsty Pattrick, Mass Organisation Archive

Telephone: 01273 337514

ESRC Press Office:

·         Aaron Boardley
Telephone: 01793 413122

·         Susie Watts
Telephone: 01793 413119

1.      Event: What did you do today?
Location: The Keep, Woollards Way, Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9BP

o   3 November 2014, 10.00 – 14.00 School Event

o   4 November 2014, 10.00 – 16.00 Creative Workshop – Theme ‘Home

o   5 November 2014, 10.00 – 16.00 Creative Workshop – Theme ‘Work’

o   7 November 2014, 18.00 – 19.45 Evening Talk

The Mass Observation Archive specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981. The Archive is a charitable trust in the care of the University of Sussex.
The 12th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country’s leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. A full programme is available at You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
4.      The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary.