“Mass Observation is a business venture somewhat on the lines of the Gallop [sic] Poll.”

So commented a member of Winston Churchill’s inner circle during the 2nd Word War, expressing serious doubts as to the intentions of the movement set up by the left leaning Harrison, Jennings and Madge with the intention of creating an “anthropology of ourselves” – Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires. They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.

This ‘bombshell’ is reported today in a piece in the FT. This report seems, to me, to neatly mirror the way in which ‘applied’ or experimental anthropology or ethnography is still slurred by casting it as impure research paid for out of corporate coffers.

[There is a pretty good summary of the Movement on wikipedia here].

The release of an “extremely vituperative report” from the Public Record Office suggests that the Mass Observation Movement was some sort of front – worse than that, it seems, a vulgar piece of market research:

“It is a dirty affair. It obtains its ‘volunteer observers’ by posing as a group with leftwing tendencies setting out to better the lot of the down-trodden poor, but actually sets its enthusiastic supporters to finding out free of charge how people like Messrs Unilever’s margarine and things of that sort, for which Messrs Unilever and others pay the promoters of the scheme.”

However, Dorothy Sheridan, keeper of the MBO archives at Sussex University refutes these claims, whilst not disputing the fact that even for so imaginative a project, ‘needs-must’ was a working principle too:

“They survived on a shoe-string, begged money from all and sundry, and the motivations were political and sociological. [But] by the late 1940s they were becoming more commercially orientated.”