People Surveys – Research Point – Humphrey Spender

Tom Harrisson Mass Observation

Founded in 1937, by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, writer Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, the Mass Observation organisation would work with volunteers and full-time observers on a range of social research projects, including East end Anti-Semitism and the West Fulham by-election 1938. Based in a Bolton house they called Worktown and Madge’s home in Blackheath, London, Harrison and Madge favoured different methods when it came to collecting data. Harrison preferred a top-down approach, where behaviour of a group or class of people would be observed, whereas Madge used a top down approach, asking individuals for responses and using surveys to provide qualitative data. After some initial hesitation, the government’s Ministry of Information would work with Mass Observation during WW2 to report on public morale and the effects of the war. Madge would leave the group in 1940, citing the government commissions as one of his reasons, believing that it was a slippery slope from being a majority government-funded organisation, to becoming a spying organ of the state, facilitating government manipulation of public opinion. After the war, many of the Mass Observation workers would go on to join the newly established Government Social Survey, and this coupled with lack of funding saw the organisation eventually merge into a market research company. Among sociologists and anthropologists, Mass Observation is still valued for its pioneering work in the field of participant observation.

For this section in the coursework we are asked to explore Humphrey Spender’s work on ‘Worktown’ and reflect on the style and themes used, paying particular attention to the ethics and purpose of the project. A link to an article ’90 and Counting’, published in BJP magazine is given to provide background information to the photographer and the project.

Spender was the Mass-Observation’s main photographer although the survey also included written material, with ‘eavesdroppers’ listening to conversations and making notes. The intention was to record the everyday life and customs of the British public accurately and unobtrusively. Spender wanted to be unobserved, capture natural reactions and leave behind any pre-conceived ideas that he may have had. Ethically, they had the best intentions yet the House of Commons referred to them as ‘spies and snoopers’ Barron, J. (2000)

An article in the Guardian quotes Spender as saying:

We were called spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-toms, lopers, snoopers, envelope-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies and society playboys.

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