University of Sussex Special Collections and Mass Observation Archive Blog

Showcasing our archives, collections, activities and projects

Using Mass Observation. Guest blog by Julius Baker (University of Sussex)



T. Kushner’s (2004) book, “We Europeans? Mass-Observation, ‘Race’ and British Identity in the Twentieth Century”, first introduced me to the work of the Mass Observation Archive (MOA), but it was only last month that I finally had a chance go there in person. As a Migration masters student from the University of Sussex I have become interested in diaries as a research method, so clearly the MOA was an ideal point of departure.

Unfortunately my visit was brief, constrained by a looming deadline for my PhD proposal. However, I managed to explore one of the MOA’s spring directive (2013), “Human rights, immigration and the legal system”, getting through the diarists in A-C. I will now share some personal reflections.

After reading through the diary entries I fully appreciate the diversity of styles, levels of depth, and critical reflection that they engender. One entry, by a lecturer, used images to reflect the favouring of ‘skilled’

migrants (doctors, engineers etc.) and shows the diversity of styles and approaches taken. However, it would have been interesting to see how he could have expanded on such a view through further entries, written or visual. The ‘public’ nature of the diarist’s entries stood out, as many reflected upon and engaged the reader, something I found very interesting.

This was best exemplified by one diarist in particular, who felt unable to answer the directive as she lacked sufficient knowledge to properly engage it. Such entries attest to the layered nature of privacy and publicity afforded by the Mass Observation diaries. Finally, the amount that individuals reflect on their own migration histories, in detail or in general, attests to the ability of diarists in self-reflexive moments to challenge the (often) naturalised binaries of ‘migrant’ and ‘non-migrant’.

However, the extent to which they offer a means of reflecting upon value-laden constructions surrounding ‘the migrant’ was less clear. To clarify, I only read a small selection of texts and they were over a short amount of time. Additionally, for an interesting and insightful discussion of the value-laden constructions surrounding ‘the migrant’, see B. Anderson (2013) “US and THEM: the dangerous politics of immigration control”. While participants did to some extent recognise their own migration histories, ‘culture’ was used as a common strategy of differentiation. Moreover, from some of the diarists’ writings regarding their experiences with immigrants a (invisible) discourse of ‘middle-class whiteness’ emerged. There was an interesting entry in which a diarist differentiated herself and her family members from her daughter’s boyfriend, from Nigeria (I think), through his inability to comprehend what a magpie was or that seeing a lone one was bad luck, tied to his lack of (British) ‘culture’ or ‘cultural understanding’.

All of the diary entries interested me and I will continue to explore the spring directive (2013) among others once I have finished my PhD proposal and I encourage others to explore the Mass Observation Diaries. They are a unique and fascinating body of material, one which I look forward to working with.


Julius Baker

MA Migration studies

University of Sussex

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