Department of Politics

Mass Observation and Popular Understandings of Politics

Jonathan Moss’s research on popular understandings of politics addresses the issue of political disengagement in Britain. Surveys show a lack of trust in political actors and institutions, whilst populist politicians and parties seek to capitalise on this political disaffection. Jonathan was involved in an ESRC funded project that aimed to identify the historical specificity and likely causes of current disenchantment with formal politics. This research was distinguished by its focus on the voices of ‘ordinary’ citizens found in the Mass Observation Archive, which is based here at Sussex.

The research findings have been published in Contemporary British History, Political Geography, and Public Opinion Quarterly. His co-authored book (with Nick Clarke, Will Jennings, and Gerry Stoker) The Good Politician: Folk Theories, Political Interaction, and the Rise of Anti-politics was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018 and offers two potential explanations for how and why popular understandings of politics have changed in post-war Britain. First, citizens images of 'the good politician' have changed. They have become more multi-faceted, less coherent, and consequently more difficult for politicians to achieve. Second, these images have become more difficult for politicians to achieve especially by current forms of political interaction. With the mediatisation of politics and the professionalisation of political campaigning, this political interaction between citizens and politicians has also changed, making it more difficult for politicians to perform virtues to citizens and for citizens to calibrate judgements of politicians.

The findings from this project were cited in various newspapers, including The Independent, The New York Times, and The Financial Times. Research stemming from this project was also cited by the House of Commons Library Briefing Paper: 'Political disengagement in the UK: Who is disengaged?' On the back of this research, Jonathan has worked with the charity CXK on a project aimed at improving the political engagement of young people in East Sussex.

Jonathan continues to research popular understandings of politics using the Mass Observation Archive. He is currently working on a project with Emily Robinson and Jake Watts that explores the role of emotion in everyday responses to Brexit.