Mass Observation (1937-2017) and Life Writing

Seven Late Twentieth-Century Lives: the Mass Observation Project and Life Writing


  • James Hinton University of Warwick



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.

Author Biography

James Hinton, University of Warwick

James Hinton, Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick, has published widely on the social history of twentieth-century Britain, including books on labour history, women’s history and the peace movement. Since retiring in 2004 he has written a history of Mass Observation and two collections of biographical essays based on the writing of the mass observers. Currently, using his own youthful diaries, poems and letters, he is trying his hand at an autobiographical essay.





Mass Observation (1937-2017) and Life Writing