The National Panel Responds: Mass Observation Directives 1939-1945

Fiona Courage, Special Collections Manager and Curator of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex

Charles Madge: What does he think?

Tom Harrisson: What do I think?

Charles Madge: What do you think?

Tom Harrisson: Mass-Observation aims to give the answer. We try and speak for you. Why don’t you help us and tell us about yourselves?

                                   From: They Speak for Themselves. Broadcast 1 June 1939                                              


Mass Observation’s call in 1937 for volunteer writers to participate in a National Panel representing the ‘thinking’ British public marked the establishment of Mass Observation’s most enduring methods of survey. In one of their earliest publications, First Year's Work, Harrisson and Madge described the Mass Observers as becoming “the cameras with which we are trying to photograph contemporary life”  a role which the National Panel of volunteers continued to fulfil into the 1950s and beyond. The first call for volunteers to contribute to Mass Observation requested that participants list everything they did from waking to sleeping on a given day, originally the twelfth of each month (tying in with the date of George VIs Coronation in May 1937) and then moving onto ‘special’ days such as Armistice Day and Christmas Day. Throughout 1938, the focus began to change from listing activities on specific days to requesting opinions on events so that by 1939 Mass Observation was sending out qualitative questionnaires that ‘directed’ the participants into providing in-depth commentary on various aspects of their lives. The questionnaires were sent out monthly throughout the Second World War and continued to be issued into the late 1940s before dwindling in number by the early 1950s. The questionnaires came to be known as Directives and provide some of the most wide ranging surveys undertaken by Mass Observation. They comprise Mass Observation’s largest and most consistent population, providing huge potential for longitudinal and qualitative studies and yet they were amongst the least used material by the original Mass Observation project. Even in the research undertaken using the Archive today, they appear to have a much lower profile than the diaries or material collected using ethnographic methods. Despite this lower profile, the information that they contain is amongst the most revealing and comparable available for the war time opinions and experiences of members of the British public in these years. Over 2000 people participated in the Panel at some point in its existence with nearly 150 archival boxes of their replies to Mass Observation’s questions still in existence. Numbers of responses vary from month to month and whilst there is every indication that the majority of responses have survived there is evidence of some gaps namely the responses for 1941.Whole batches of the 1941 Directive responses appear to have been damaged or removed before the Archive came to Sussex in 1970s although we do know they existed at some point as reports based on them are available in the File Report sequence.