There were many levels of observation at play within the M-O’s process of social data gathering. Firstly, there were obvious class differentials: M-O was founded by three middle-class men and most of the self-selected volunteer observers were also middle-class (the submissions from the few working-class observers have been gathered together via the interactive Map on the resource).
Equally, the volunteer observers were watching, listening-in to, and reporting on the people around them, albeit anonymously, and often documented this eavesdropping in their reports. This is exemplified by one Mass Observer (respondent number 363, a man, residing in Liverpool) who, while dining in a café, admits he was only half listening to his companion, with “the other ½ being engaged by the conversation of three men at the table next to us”, the nature of which conversation he duly records.
Inevitably, the documents created by the volunteers provide subjective comment and reflection, and it is these very personal opinions on work, leisure and daily habits, often expressed in great detail, which make this archive such a rich resource for us today. Many of the reports veer between snippets of the mundanities of daily life and comment on contemporary politics which rupture the everyday. A Mass Observer from Blackpool is a good case in point as he mentions his dinner (“remains of Saturday’s meat”), the weather (“it is raining hard”), and his frustration with his parents (“they always tell me these things at the last minute”) before noting “a wave of angry passion passes through me as I read that Mosley & the Fascists are asking for another march through the East End of London”. This Day Survey was written in September 1937, eleven months after the British Union of Fascists had marched on Cable Street.
The research produced by the paid M-O employees was considered to be the more objective material, although the voices of the investigators regularly seep through. This information was gathered using a mixture of questionnaires, observed and overheard data, and relevant ephemera, all of which was formed into Topic Collections. Between them the paid observers reported on a vast miscellany of themes ranging from the socio-political to the pop-cultural, including Housing, Astrology and Spiritualism, Reading Habits, Women in Wartime, Music, Dancing and Jazz, and Propaganda and Morale.
All of the reports gathered from paid and unpaid observers were ultimately collated to form the basis of themed File Reports and also a range of published texts.