Saturday, 25 September 2010

Modern-Day Mass Observation

It all began with a letter published in the New Statesman on 30 January 1937. It was jointly written by three diversely talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and filmmaker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). The letter announced the founding of Mass Observation, an organisation which aimed to investigate daily life in modern Britain in the same way that anthropologists were studying remote, tribal societies.

It invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, an “anthropology at home … a science of ourselves”. Its list of suggested topics for investigation read like a surrealist poem on the hidden strangeness of mundane life: “shouts and gestures of motorists … beards, armpits, eyebrows … behaviour of people at war memorials … anthropology of football pools … bathroom behaviour … female taboos about eating.”

I was just wondering what a similar list today might look like:

Noises made in the quiet zone on Virgin Pendolino trains.
The tone of humourless earnestness on newspaper comment sites.
Queues for posh pie shops at summer festivals.
The strange svengali status of Simon Cowell.
Facial expressions of people conducting mobile phone conversations.
Twitter etiquette.
Anger towards speed cameras.
The counter-intuitive embrace of the discomforts of camping.
The varied topiary of the goatee beard.

If anyone has any other suggestions, let me know …

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The quotidian is what is humble and solid, what is taken for granted and that of which all the parts follow each other in such a regular, unvarying succession that those concerned have no call to question their sequence; thus it is undated and (apparently) insignificant; though it occupies and preoccupies, it is practically untellable, and it is the ethics underlying routine and the aesthetics of familiar settings. At this point it encounters the modern. This word stands for what is novel, brilliant, paradoxical, and bears the imprint of technicality and worldliness; it is (apparently) daring and transitory, proclaims its initiative and is acclaimed for it.’ – Henri Lefebvre


  1. Ipod playlists: embarrassing or impressing
    The organic vegetable box: yes or no
    Shopping online: advantages and pitfalls
    Nigella or Nigel?
    The tattoo: why?

  2. 'Property apologism': a new homeowner playing down the deficiencies of the house that he has just bought in an effort to stress its correspondences with his perceptions of a dream home, or its good value.

    For example, use of the phrase 'up and coming' to describe areas of low house values. Also, saying that you 'gets used to' living by a trainline, main road, water treatment plant, pub or school.


  3. In Silicon Valley, USA, the ultra brief emails with abbreviated words sent among the highest ranking yet young techies to demonstrate status (I believe)--signaling I'm too busy to be bothered to even write this.

    The insults made in comments sections about the people who commented previously, ignoring the article or subject matter that the comment section supports.

    How lesbians flirt in public.

    Who controls the remote. (Maybe you call it a clicker.)

    What passes for "home cooking."

  4. Thanks all for these suggestions - although I think we might still be short of a mass movement.