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Radio 4 tribute to Mass Observation’s extraordinary story of everyday life

First edition cover of one of the Mass Observation books

A University of Sussex archive devoted to everyday life and opinion as told by ordinary people is the subject of a series of Radio 4 special reports.

The Mass Observation Project, the archive for which forms part of the University library’s Special Collections, is 75 this year and to mark the anniversary, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 is charting the history of the project from 1937 onwards.

The reports include interviews with University members and in the first report, broadcast today (Thursday 19 April 2012), historian Dr Claire Langhamer can be heard talking to presenter Allan Little about the archive and why the public engaged with it.

The original project, begun in 1937, was the inspiration of anthropologists, writers and film-makers Charles Madge, Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings. The three researchers wanted to create an “anthropology of ourselves” based on observations of everyday behaviour by anonymous volunteers who wrote reports. The project then expanded to include day diaries and responses to questions on general and current topics, issued by the Mass Observation researchers.

The material collated by the original Mass Observation project (which was wound up in the 1950s) formed an archive that arrived with Tom Harrisson at the University of Sussex in 1970. Today it is now in demand as a valuable source of information and inspiration for academics, writers and researchers ever since, providing human insights into topics ranging from World War II and the NHS to Princess Diana, homosexuality, pubs and beards.

The project was revived in the 1980s as a charitable trust and continues to this day, seeking opinion from volunteer writers countrywide, supporting history courses and research at the University and in schools and collaborating with researchers, writers and film-makers.

Mass Observation in recent years has inspired Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel Small Island, Simon Garfield’s trilogy Our Hidden Lives, We Are At War and Private Battles, Victoria Wood’s BAFTA-winning drama Housewife, 49, Kevin McDonald’s YouTube documentary Day In A Life and a wealth of other publications.


Notes for Editors

To listen to the Today report for 19 April 2012 in full and to watch out for further reports, visit the Today web site.

Find out more about Mass Observation at the University of Sussex and how to get involved by visiting the Mass Observation web site

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Thursday, 19 April 2012