Collaborate and Perforate

By Lucy Robinson

In this blog I am going to introduce the Mass Observation Project and its digitised off shoot – Observing the 80s. 

The Mass Observation Project (MOP) is a volunteer writing project based at the University of Sussex. There are currently 450 writers (often referred to as ‘observers’) who respond to ‘directives’ or open ended questionnaires that are sent to them three times a year by email or post. The Directives contain two or three broad themes that writers are asked to comment on ranging from personal issues to wider social and political themes and events.

Each observer is issued with a code which is used to give them anonymity and allows them to write candidly if they wish. As a result, the Project solicits in-depth accounts of everyday life: stories, memoirs, lists, letters, diagrams, drawings, maps, diaries, photographs, press cuttings, confessions, reports on people, places and events, across a wide variety of topics. Since it was launched in 1981 over 4,500 people have volunteered to write for the project.

Observing the 80s is a relatively small scale project, which brought together oral history, mass observation

responses and ephemera from the 1980s. The material, which has been made available as an open educational resource, offers a unique insight into the lives and opinions of British people from all social classes and regions during the 1980s.

The value of digitising these collections is that there was previously no established historiography of the 1980s.  The decade was largely represented as polarised and the work that did exist was similarly divided into oppositional camps.  By bringing together these resources from the MOP and the British Library Oral History Collections, students and academics are able to make and illustrate connections across and between these polarised approaches.

Observing the 80s was ostensibly a teaching led project, but it has taught me a lot about how I want to research, and how I might think about the journey between a piece of evidence’s initial context of production and its ongoing accrual of historical meaning, through use, and subsequent reuse. When we reuse data, each time it is picked up and picked through we add a new layer of our own meaning. The Mass Observation Project (MOP) writers have taught me to think about that historical acquisition of meaning, from production to reception, and to listen to the producers of our evidence as analysts or collaborators.

Mass Observation perforates the line between who is the researcher and who is being researched. It builds collaborations between the original researchers asking their questions in the past, between the respondents who shared their analysis, and between researchers since.

To illustrate this I’m going to use two MOP directives from 1988 to draw out the complicated ways in which events and linear narratives are intertwined, and how the barriers between evidence and analysis are perforated over time. I combine the directives and the responses to them, and the contextual explanation of the directives that Prof Dorothy Sheridan produced for the Observing the 80s project.

27. Autumn 1988: Part 1: Regular Pastimes                                    SxMOA2/27/1

The first directive is form Autumn 1988. It was intended to capture TV-watching within a broader context and asked the correspondents about their leisure activities described as ‘Regular Pastimes’.

Regular Pastimes – that is to say not occasional (e.g only at weekends) or seasonal (e.g only in the summer). Reading is an obvious example but there are others things like listening to (and making) music, writing (letters, MOP observations etc), listening to the radio or watching TV, and crafts of all sorts of which knitting is only one example. What I would like would be a record of the place that such activities have in your daily life: when do you engage in them (e.g every spare moment, or set times); for how long usually; do you do something else as well; how do they fit in with the activities of other members of the household; if there are financial costs or limitations what are they, and, if there are end products, what happens to them?

The answers to this directive focus on newspapers, magazines, and all sorts of writerly and readerly pursuits as well as the physical space that readable objects, or their shelving, occupy in the home,  The respondents interpreted the directive’s prompts in various different ways. Some produced a diary of what people did to pass the time, other provided a detailed account of their leisure activities.  The respondents also interrogated the meanings of particular terms, for example the meaning of ‘regular’.

G226, F, 1941

Some explore what reading means to them in vibrant ways. Reading romantic novels, or magazines like Valentine, mark life-cycle stages and book clubs provide social connections outside the family.

Not only does their voluntary participation in the project as a whole demonstrate the importance of the written word, their answers share the variety of ways in which writing matters and how it connects different parts of their lives. The etiquette around a quick response time to a letter, or regret for unfulfilled ambitions to become a writer as a younger woman, (C1191), another attended creative writing groups (G218). 

The respondents also use the directive as an opportunity to think about what time means to them, and indeed the emotionality of time. Whether they are talking about how the day, or the week or year is structured by activity, the responses map periodisation as an experience. They also challenge some of the divisions between activity as leisure and work. As Langhamer has pointed out the categories of work and leisure are emotionally forged through gendered structures.  A woman’s leisure activity (baking, sewing, playing with children) could equally be seen as work in a different context.  Together these writers have taught me to be mindful of the ways in which people define these borders and perforations for themselves, rather than expecting them to fit into my boxes as a researcher. 

B1106, M 1945

And to think about how time, and life cycle stage intersect.

B1989 M b1927

When writing about their pastimes respondents include where they shop, what they listen to on the radio, some also include MO as a pastime, occupying this space across and between unpaid work and leisure.

B1215 F 1953

The List is a classic MOP frame. Respondents are often invited to make lists, and revisit them with others, to be the observer. But lists are also a way of taking control of content. Sometimes when the directives they are responding to are wordy, unclear or laboured, the respondent uses a list to gets down to what really matters to them; just the key objects or events. 

27. Autumn 1988: Part 2: TV Day-Diaries                                    SxMOA2/27/2

The British Film Institute (BFI) approached the MOA to participate in a national ‘Television Day Diary’ to capture on one day what people were watching on TV. The directive went out in the post with a colour printed form which explained the BFI’s intentions and offered space on the form for the day diary. The form was not restricted to the Mass Observers – it was the BBC’s general public form. Copies of the form were donated to the MOA.

Dear Observer, An unusual package this time. The British Film Institute has asked for our cooperation in their lst November “Television Day Diary” project – an idea inspired by MASS-OBSERVATION in the first place. The enclosed leaflet is self-explanatory but I’d like to emphasize two points: – The “Day Diaries” must be sent to the British Film Institute, 21 Stephen St, London W1P 1PL, and not to the Archive. – The BFI competition deadline is November 19th. This deadline does not apply to your response to the topics below which should be returned to the Archive as usual. I would be grateful for your help in this because your TV “Day Diaries” will finally be returned to us and will be a valuable addition to our collections. Please fill in the tear-off slip at the end of the Directive and return to us with your Directive reply. This will give us an idea of how many of our correspondents have taken part in the BFI project.

Setting the directive up as a letter (“Dear Observer”) breaks down the relationship between contributor and archivist reiterating that we are in this together in a shared endeavour, but more interestingly for this Directive the commissioning process is explicit in the form and content of the responses.

In terms of content the responses map different social values; some observers had embraced breakfast TV and it had the changed shape of their day; responses show the perennial concerns over violence in children’s cartoons appear regularly; respondents felt that there were too many quiz shows and too much Snooker coverage in the schedule and a number of respondents engaged with discussion of Pat Butcher’s earrings and how depressing Eastenders had become.  There were those who identified themselves by their taste, whether they loved or hated Neighbours, or Terry Wogan. Responses also show people starting to use video recorders to fit TV into their life rather than the other way round. There were also numerous concerns about TV ‘ruling our lives’.

Even though this directive was explicitly for the BFI, and even though it looked different than the usual directives in form, MOP writers took their expectations of MOP with them in their answers. As researchers we also get some slightly different contextual information.  BFI ask them to add their current marital status, and occupation. As Annabella Pollen has demonstrated looking for representivity is not the most interesting way to work with MOP.  Because MOP is a writing project not a survey it is generally less interested in blunt markers of category around class for example. If I’m honest, this is what I love about working with MOP but it can be a bit frustrating when you just want to know a bit more basic background on the writers.

Respondents showed how perforated their own lives were.

W729 Part time library assistant
A883 M b 1933 who explained why he couldn’t answer the day diary in the other part of the directive.

These are reflexive researchers.

47 year old F G226

They record the process of their own research…

Male 66, R1418

… and make their own analysis of what the research is for and  why it matters.

53 year old male B1426

As co analyst MOP writers feel entitled to take control of the agenda, this is ‘their’ project after all.

Male 66, R1418

And they also feel licensed to critique the agenda and the process.

Gay Male 42, B1106

In this post I have worked through a few responses to a couple of Mass Observation Project directives. For me the scale or the breadth of the evidence is not the point, it is the journey that the evidence has made, from complex context to complex context, accruing meaning, resisting agendas, setting new ones, and inviting us to think in perforated rather than disconnected ways.

The teenager

By Pam Thurschwell

“Some 6,000,000 U.S. teen-age girls live in a world all their own — a lovely, gay, enthusiastic, funny and blissful society almost untouched by the war. It is a world of sweaters and skirts and bobby sox and loafers, of hair worn long, of eye-glass rims painted red with nail polish, of high school boys not yet gone to war. It is world still devoted to parents who are pals even if they use the telephone too much. It is a world of Virgil’s Aeneid, second-year French and plane geometry, of class plays, field hockey, “moron” jokes and put-on accents. It is a world of slumber parties and the Hit Parade, of peanut butter and popcorn and the endless collecting of menus and match covers and little stuffed animals.”

“Teen-Age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own” Life Magazine, 1944.

While researching my book on adolescent temporality I found myself transfixed by a photo essay from a 1944 Life Magazine called “Teen-Age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own”. The photo essay portrays a sea of happy, white, middle class, mostly blonde, American girls doing all the things we associate with the bobby-soxer: dates, sodas, high school football games. The photos and captions give the reader a sense of the divide between adults and young people that becomes more noticeable around the 1940s. The article has a tongue-in-cheek anthropological tone; the teenager seems like an alien intruder with a strange set of rituals and habits. 1940s teenagers are pictured as confusing to their parents’ generation who grew up without access to that identity. The Life Magazine story makes it seem as if to understand modern teenagers, adult readers need to be anthropologists of their own children, studying them to try to understand their newly emerging culture.

During the course of the 20th century adolescence goes from being seen as a potentially troubling and anarchic stage everyone passes through to an identity category bound up with consumption and style.  We know that adults are often anxious about the potential radical rebellions of adolescence – think about contemporary panics over youth radicalization for instance. Simultaneously youth as a stage has often been romanticized—either as blissful innocent idleness or safely navigable anarchic rebellion. Adult society anxiously criminalises the behaviour of teenagers, feeling it needs to keep a close watch on them, while at the same time idealizing adolescence, and wanting to remain in it. There are paradoxes that gather around adult attitudes toward the teenager in every time period. Are teenagers sloths (hiding in their rooms or apathetically on their phones) or are they dangerous revolutionaries? Are they where we now put the possibility of fun, play, adventure, or where we unload all our most troubling fears for the future?

From the mid 20th century onwards, youth begins to become an object of desire in itself, rather than just a stage of life to be endured. This shift accompanies more possibilities for young people to spend time together in public space, at dances, in clubs or schools or hanging around on street corners. Jon Savage’s book Teenage charts this change all over Europe, tracing the ways adolescents claim new kinds of freedom and organise in new forms. Changes in education laws in Europe and America feed this change. From the 1870s in England when education becomes compulsory, public funding for schools meant that children stayed in schools for longer. Conscription during both world wars also played a part in prolonging the space before entering the adult world of work. Adolescents had more leisure time and eventually more money to spend. At this point adolescence morphs into a shiny new identity: the teenager.

Before the 1940s then, there are no “teenagers” but many of the concerns and worries that we find about teenagers and how they are spending their time, are clearly apparent much earlier, from the end of the 19th century when we find growing concerns about adolescents’ leisure time and activities and how adults can be sure they grow up properly into certain socially sanctioned directions and not others. The Life Magazine article features something we probably want to call fun; there is a lot of hanging out in packs with friends, at the record store, at the soda fountain, at the drive in movie. But this fun is shot through with rigidly disciplinary gender and sex expectations for teenage girls who are negotiating this new identity. Notice especially the “sandwich girl” “who is considered a real crumb” in the words of the Life Magazine photo caption.  Pictured surrounded by boys in a diner, the sandwich girl allows her body to be in too close proximity to boys and puts herself in the centre of the picture.  Life asserts this will not go unnoticed: “girls will not invite her to their hen parties and will try act cool towards boys who formed sandwich.” Is Life simply reflecting or is it helping to create this punishment of the new teenage girl at its centre?

Adolescence transforms into modern teenage identity at this (very white, very middle class, very American) Life Magazine moment. What kinds of data re-animation might allow us to understand this movement from adolescent phase to fashion-conscience, consumer oriented, explicit teenage girl identity we see in the process of sexualisation here? What kinds of stories come into play alongside the visualization, celebration, and punishment of the teenage girl emerging here in the 1940s?  How does data like this, obviously faulty, idealised, light-hearted and depressingly creepy still matter?

Experiments with re-animating data

By Ester McGeeney

Our new project will return to an academic data set back to the community from which it was once abstracted. Our data is a set of 150 in-depth interviews with young women living in and around Manchester in 1989-1990. These were collected as part of the Women Risk and Aids project and formed part of a landmark study that changed the way that researchers and youth workers were able to talk about young people and gender, sexual risk, sexual pleasure and sexual agency.

Our plan is to work with new generations of young women and practitioners currently living and working in Manchester to reanimate this data. This will involve re-using the data and opening it up for collective reanalysis to create new stories and new understandings of the changes in the experience and portrayal of teenage sexualities over a thirty year period.

In 2013 I worked with Rachel Thomson and the young people’s sexual health organisation Brook on the ESRC funded ‘good sex’ project. This project involved reanimating data from my PhD (a mixed methods study of young people’s understanding and experiences of ‘good sex’ and sexual pleasure) to create a series of short films that could be used by education practitioners and hosted online by Brook.

At the start of this project I had no idea what it meant to ‘reanimate’ data so we worked in an experimental mode, inviting young people and artists to join us in developing methods for working with data in open, participatory and creative ways. First we worked with theatre director and writer Lucy Kerbel who shared with as a series of techniques for visualising data and creating written responses. ‘Get comfortable and close your eyes’, Lucy told us, before reading out a short extract from an interview with a young woman talking about her tugging sexual desire.

‘Look out through the eyes of the person who is talking…What’s above you? Look down at your feet. Look to one side and then to the other. What is the air like? Are you inside? Is it warm? Cool? What’s the quality of the air like?

Look around and spot one object. An object that appeals to that person. Move towards it, touch it, can you pick it up? Does it make any noise? How does the young person talking feel about that object? That place? Is the young person in a familiar place? Choose one word to describe that space. What would it be?’

The young people imagined the interview participant in Nandos, on a bus, at a house party, on a desert island and in her bedroom. She feels trapped, confused, despair. Time is moving slowly. There’s an iPhone, a hoody, a tin-box, windscreen wipers and a clock. Next Lucy asked the group to write non-stop for one minute expressing themselves as if they were the interview participant speaking to someone she felt comfortable with and then again to someone she did not feel comfortable with. The imagined scenes and scripts created a series of responses to the data, reanimating it whilst also creating new stories and scenes.


Watching Lucy work with the group I was struck by the ease with which young people engaged with the data and were able to imagine themselves to be a young woman with a set of desires perhaps very different from their own and to relate her experiences (as a young, black, muslim woman who wants to wait until she is at least 20 to have sex with a man) to the everyday objects and practices of their lives. The space Lucy created was the space that theorists argue for in the literature about sex education – a safe space in which young people are able to listen to and engage with sexual stories and desires of others, to imagine sexuality otherwise and to talk about and respond to stories about sexuality in ways that did not leave them vulnerable or exposed. A space that prioritised creativity, possibility and emotion – working beyond the didactic and judgmental modes so often mobilised in sex education. Here knowledge was not a thing made to be passed to young people but a thing in the making in which young people were active participants.

Our next attempt at reanimating data was led by the group of young people I worked with and facilitated by documentary film-maker Susi Arnott. The young people in the group found the stories captured in the interview data compelling.

They found stories that they had never heard before – stories of attempted first sex where the penis just wouldn’t go ‘in’ to the vagina for want of trying – but that perfectly mirrored their own and their friends experiences. They found others that they couldn’t believe someone had told me – stories of vulnerable masculinity and sexual failure and stories that they wanted every young person across the country to hear – stories of female pleasure and sex getting better over time. They wanted these stories to be heard by other young people in a simple format; a short film showing one young person speaking directly to camera, telling the story as if it were their own. So we experimented with asking young actors and peer educators to re-perform the stories captured in the data, speaking directly to camera as if in Youtube confessional mode. We also asked our actors to step out of role and comment on the story that had re-performed. Our films became movement of re-analysis. In their performances young people interpreted and gave meaning to the data and in stepping out of role they engaged in more straight forward analytic commentary – working out meaning, giving judgement, relating, commenting and empathising. We created new sexual stories in these films that simultaneously reanimated those found and recreated from the interview data.

In our new project I’ll work with Ali Ronan and local youth workers and artists to engage new groups of young people in reanimating and re-analysing the WRAP data, using methods that generate new sexual stories and commentary on what has changed for young people over the past thirty years. I imagine that performance will be a key strategy, but if my previous experiments have taught me anything it is that this work is unpredictable and that young people are capable of leading and developing their own methods that may be quite different to what I had previously imagined.   

Taking you back to 1989

By Rachel Thomson

Let me take you back to 1989 . Think Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’, Madonna’s  ‘Like a Prayer’, the B52s ‘Love Shack’ and A Guy called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’. Let me also take you to Manchester. It is the time of Clause 28 and the galvanising of a generation of queer-as-fuck activism that linked feminism, gay liberation, post miners strike political activism, dancing and DMs. In Manchester this took the form of marches through St Peters Square, dancing at the Number One club and Flesh at the Hacienda.

Manchester in the late 1980s was a complicated but cosmopolitan space. The music scene looked to New York and Detroit with its back turned firmly away from London. The once futuristic housing estate of Hulme became a rent-free republic for the unemployed: revolutionaries, students, villains all artist of various kinds. North and South Manchester were different worlds, the south shaped by the presence of Universities and the north by the relics of what were, until the early 1980s, thriving engineering and chemical industries that provided men and fathers with a family wage. Further afield in the cotton towns of greater Manchester a different gender regime held sway, where fast-talking funny women earned their own wages and refused to suffer fools gladly.

It was into this landscape, with a new Sony Walkman in hand, that I emerged as a 23 year old social researcher, recruiting young women to talk with me about sex. I was pushing at an open door. Hairdressers, school girls, beauty therapists, shop girls, shop stewards, trainee nurses, beauty therapists, telecom workers and a sound recorder at Granada Studios all responded to an invitation to speak out about sex. We were in a new moment made public by official alarm about the HIV virus which could only lead to AIDS and untimely death. Two years previously every house in the country had received a government warning not ‘to die of ignorance’ and now films featuring young heterosexuals dancing in discos showed at the cinema warnings viewers: ‘There is still no cure for AIDS. And its on the increase.’

The testimonies that we collected capture worlds in turmoil and transition. Young women are questioning the grim advice of mothers, making sense of the collapse of the industrial working class family, and troubling the boundaries between respectable and unrespectable femininity. This was a moment of popular feminism – a  no-going-back kind of feminism, emerging from the ruins of deindustrialisation and divorce where young women understood that they needed to forge their own way in the world as best they could. In retrospect we can see them as having invisible resources: unmentioned housing benefit and ‘free’ education. But they also had to contend with violence, with shame and with being shamed.

It is this set of interviews that forms the heart of the Reanimating data project, offering opportunities to revisit this moment in time and think again about what was happening. The project promises to conduct experiments with people, places and archives. Our first step is to secure the interviews. For thirty years the interviews have been stored privately by one of the original research team. Our task is now is to digitise and archive them in a form that means they are safe for the future. We then will work with our collaborators in Manchester to generate as much contextual material as we can about the time that they capture. We will revisit the places and some of the people involved in the research exploring what has and has not changed and what it means to bring data back to the people and places it emerged from. Working in partnership with community archive project Feminist Webs we will find ways of bringing this material back to life and into conversation with young women living in the city today.

This is the first blog post for the project and marks the moment when we open our work to a wider group of fellow travellers – people who might be interested in our experiments and their outcomes. The project is a collaboration from the beginning. A collaboration between the original research team that conducted the Women Risk And Aids project and who are the custodians of the material (Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe and myself Rachel Thomson) and a team of new generation sexuality researchers including Ester McGeeney who will be working on the project; a collaboration between Universities (Edinburgh where Co-I Niamh Moore is based and Sussex where Sharon Webb and I are based) and community organisations including Feminist Webs (represented ion our team by Alison Ronan) and the Manchester people’s History Museum; a collaboration between sociologists and historians as well as between generations of feminists.


On December 7th 2018 we held a kick-off workshop through which we launched the project. The workshop enabled us to convene a group of critical friends who are helping us imagine and deliver this project and over they day they provided us with expert input on the key concepts and methods that underpin our work:

Key concepts: The teenager (Pam Thurschwell); feminist time travel (Caroline Basssett); collaborative history (Lucy Robinson); sexualisation (Sara Bragg) and collective biography (Janet Batsleer)

Key methodologies: the archive as boundary object (Niamh Moore); critical digital pedagogies (DM Withers), reanimating data (Ester McGeeney), preservation and access (Sharon Webb)

Over the next few weeks we will publish these contributions as blog posts, opening the conversation to a wider community. Right now we can share a short film made by Susi Arnott that captures some of our excitement about the original WRAP project and the opportunity to revisit it now.

The Reanimating Data project is in 2018 funded by the ESRC under its Transforming Social Science programme. The original Women, Risk and AIDS project was funded by the ESRC in 1988 as one of a series of social science projects responding to the AIDS crisis.