Seven Late Twentieth-Century Lives: the Mass Observation Project and Life Writing
Keywords:Mass Observation, life writing, research ethics
From its revival in 1981, the Mass Observation Project has collected life writing. In response to open ended questionnaires (‘directives’), MO correspondents send in what often amount to fragments of autobiography. While this material has been explored by researchers ‘horizontally’, to discuss attitudes and behaviour in relation to the themes raised by particular directives, my book Seven Lives from Mass Observation is the first attempt to use the material ‘vertically’, assembling the fragments of autobiography contributed by some individual writers who continued to respond over two or three decades. In an earlier book, Nine Wartime Lives, I used MO's original wartime diaries (and directive responses) to write biographical essays exploring a set of common themes, derived from the mature historiography of the period, from the contrasting perspectives of nine very different observers who had all participated as active citizens in public life. This article describes the very different challenges and insights posed by the use of the more recent MOP material. The longer time frame, and less developed historiography, demanded toleration of initial confusion in the research process before the key theme of a contrast between the 1960s and 1980s emerged. The reflective narrative of MOP's autobiographical fragments (different from the immediacy of the MO wartime diaries) shaped the sample chosen: a single older generational cohort, born between the two world wars, responding to the 1960s and the 1980s as adults formed by earlier experiences. Writing intimate biographies of living people, guaranteed anonymity when they first volunteered for MOP, required developing a set of ethical protocols in conjunction with the MO Trustees.
Copyright (c) 2021 James Hinton
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Authors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
- Authors retain copyright and grant the journal right of first publication with the work simultaneously licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) that allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work's authorship and initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), with an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are permitted and encouraged to post their work online (e.g., in institutional repositories or on their website) prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work (See The Effect of Open Access).