This is a searchable, downloadable database for people wanting to identify available writing from writers contributing to the Mass Observation Project (MOP) 1981 onwards (please see the FAQs for a description of the MOP). It is a resource that provides potential users of the MOP archive with information about the biographical/demographic characteristics and writing behaviours of individual Mass Observation Project writers.
The database is designed to enable users to:
The data in this database can be downloaded to view, or manipulate, in Excel.
You can find out more about how this database was created and how to use it on the FAQs listed below. We strongly advise reading the FAQs, as these provide information on the limitations of some of the data provided.
For help and guidance on undertaking database searches, please consult the tutorial page, which provides simple instructions and step by step screenshots of typical searches.
Please note that you cannot access the responses to Mass Observation Project through this database. These can be accessed by physically visiting The Keep. (see FAQs)
Please contact us if you can't find the answer to your question in the FAQs or other help materials, or if you would like to discuss using the Mass Observation Project in more detail.
The database was developed as part of the ‘Defining the Mass Observation Project’ funded through the ESRC Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, and is a collaboration between the Mass Observation Archive, and the Universities of Southampton, Birmingham and Surrey.
Click on the question to view or hide the answer.
What is the Mass Observation Project (MOP)?
The Mass Observation Project (MOP) is a unique national life-writing project that captures the experiences, thoughts and opinions of "everyday" people in 21st century Britain.
The MOP was launched in 1981 with the aim of reviving the early Mass Observation organisation's (1937 - 1966) idea of a national writing panel. Since it began, more than 3,500 people have volunteered to write for the MOP. Many of these writers have been corresponding over several years, making the MOP rich in qualitative, longitudinal material.
These writers, who are often known as “Observers”, respond to “Directives”, sets of questions that are sent to them by post or email three times a year. A typical Directive consists of sets of questions on two or three broad themes, and can range from requests for: descriptions of writers’ lives and personal experiences; descriptions of writers, their identities, and how these fit within broader society; or their views on political and social issues and events. Some examples of Directive themes include: You Online (Summer 2015); The Big Society (Spring 2012); Bonfire Night (Autumn 2015); Fraud and Scans (Autumn 2015) and What makes you happy? (Winter 2013).
The Mass Observation Archive which administrates the MOP collaborates with non-commercial organisations and academics from a variety of disciplines to produce these Directives, as well as creating “in-house” questions to cover topics that relate to current events or pertinent topics (for example The General Election 2015 (Spring 2015) or The High Street (Spring 2013)).
When writers/observers join the MOP they are issued with pseudonyms, consisting of a number prefixed by an alphabetical letter, for example, A883. They use this code every time they write for the MOP. This protects their identity and gives them anonymity. This means they are able to write openly and candidly. As a result, the MOP solicits in-depth accounts that contain rich material about Observers’ opinions, views and experiences of everyday life.
Although most writers/observers answer the questions being asked within the Directives, they are not required to do so, and they are not required to follow the formatting of the questions being asked. Responses are produced in a variety of different formats. These include: stories, memoirs, lists, letters, diagrams, drawings, maps, diaries, photographs, press cuttings and confessions. Although this potential lack of structure can surprise new users of the archive, it can also provide unusual and rewarding insights
Responses can be accessed by visiting the Mass Observation Archive at The Keep (see the next FAQ).
For further information about the Mass Observation Project 1981+, please visit the Mass Observation Archives website.
For information on the earlier Mass Observation organisation please visit Mass Observation 1937.
How do I access the writing by the Mass Observation writers?
You can explore lots of information about Mass Observation Project writers and their writing through this website. However, the actual writing/documents themselves can only be accessed by physically visiting The Keep. You can view a selection of material collected during the 1980s online. Read more about this below.
The Keep is a world-class archival centre based near Brighton, in East Sussex. The Mass Observation Project (1981 onwards) housed at The Keep is part of the Mass Observation Archive, held by the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep.
Details of how to visit The Keep can be found here.
Ordering documents from The Mass Observation Project at The Keep:
When you undertake a search using the ‘Search Database’ page, the results are displayed as a horizontal list. One of the headings in this list is ‘Archive Ref’. Clicking on this will take you directly to the relevant page in The Keep catalogue, which will enable you to order writing for viewing in the Reading Room at The Keep. However, please note, that before you can order anything you will need to create an account with The Keep (registration and sign in are found at the top right hand corner of The Keep website).
Click here to the catalogue for the Mass Observation Project
A small selection of Mass Observation Project (MOP) Directives are available online. In 2012 the University of Sussex received JISC funding for a project called Observing the 1980s. This initiative involved the selection and digitisation of materials from the 1980s. This included documents from the MOP, recordings from the British Library’s Oral History collections, and printed materials/ephemera from the University of Sussex Library.
Additionally, responses to the MOP Summer 2012 Directive on the Diamond Jubilee bank holiday weekend can also be accessed online through the UK Web Archive at the British Library.
Who are the Mass Observation Project writers?
At the time of writing these FAQs (mid-2016) 3,678 people have responded to a MO Directive at least once. More than two thirds (70%) of them began to write for MO during or before 1995.
Some of the data on the demographic characteristics of these 3,768 writers were collected using a biographical questionnaire. Please note that these questionnaires were filled out at only one point in time, either in the early 1990s or at the time of joining the MOP, if they joined after 1990. Some analyses of this information are specific to these time points and thus may not reflect subsequent changes to writers’ demographic characteristics. Please see the FAQ on ‘What Data is in the Database’, below.
Age and gender: Approximately two thirds (68%) of the writers are women. Three quarters of the writers are born between the 1920s and 1960s and were on average 50 years old when they first wrote for the MOP. However the ages of writers varies greatly, with writers from 16 to 94 years old contributing to the MOP.
Where writers live: The vast majority of the writers reported that they lived in England (89%), most commonly in the South East (19%) and London (15%). Only 5% of the writers were from Scotland, and a similar proportion was from Wales. Very few (1%) were from Northern Ireland. Please note, that this information was collected from biographical datasheets written at one time point (either the 1990s or at the time of joining if the writer joined after 1990), and thus may not reflect subsequent changes to region of residence.
Marital status: Half of the writers were married at the time that they filled out a biographical datasheet (in the early 1990s or post 1990 if they joined the MO after this point). A quarter of the writers reported that they were single. 10% reported that they were cohabiting. (However, please note that some writers who identify as single may have been cohabiting in same-sex relationships.)
Who writers live with: Of 30% of all writers who provided information about their living arrangements (in the early 1990s or when they joined if they joined after 1990), 40% said that they lived with a partner, 21% said they lived with a partner and children, and 20% said that they lived alone.
Employment status: Of the half of the writers who reported their employment status (in the 1990s or when they joined, if they joined after this date), half were employed but 27% retired, half of all employed and self-employed writers worked in the public sector, the other half worked in the private sector. Most of the writers who provided information on their occupation came from professional, associate professional or administrative occupations. See https://definingmassobservation.wordpress.com/ for more information
How are the Mass Observation Project writers recruited?
Mass Observation Project (MOP) writers are a self-selected panel. In the year that the MOP began, a number of letters appeared in the national and local press appealing for writers. These letters successfully attracted over 300 responses to the MOP’s first Directive on The Royal Wedding. However, since the MOP was launched in 1981, there have been no major campaigns to recruit writers.
Since 1981, there has been substantial media coverage not only of the current MOP, but also the original Mass Observation organisation (1937-1960s), and a number of popular publications have used material from the Archive (Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of 'Housewife, 49 and Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-war Britain). This media coverage has attracted many new writers. The Archive also has a website which contains information about writing for the Mass Observation Project and maintains a lively Twitter account. Both of these have been useful tools to draw in new writers.
Since 1981 the size of the Mass Observation Panel has varied considerably. In 1988 there were nearly 1000 people writing and in 1993 the Directives were being mailed out to almost 700 people. At the time of writing (mid-2016) 450 people write for the MOP. Over the years, we have found that a panel size of around 500 is what we can comfortably maintain with our resources.
We receive around 200 applications to join the MOP each year. However in order to maintain a healthy balance of people writing for the Archive, and because we can't accept all of these applications, we now operate recruitment criteria. This was first introduced in 2004. Visit the Mass Observation website to find out what our current criteria is.
What data is in the database?
The database draws on biographical data submitted by the Mass Observation at one time point. For writers who joined the Mass Observation Project (MOP) in the 1980s, this will be biographical data submitted in the early 1990s. For writers joining the MO Project after 1990, this will be biographical data submitted when they joined the MOP. It also draws on data on Observers’ writing records.
The database contains information on writers’ characteristics, some of which are specific to these time points. This includes:
1) Year of birth/decade of birth
3) The region and indices of multiple deprivation of the places where writers lived when they submitted their biographical data
4) Who writers lived with when they submitted their biographical data
5) The jobs they were doing when they submitted their biographical data
6) Which Directives writers have responded to
7) The type of themes that they are most likely to respond to
8) How often they write
9) When they joined the writing project
The database enables users of the archive to select/sample writers and writing based on these demographic data. For example, an archive user can choose to sample the writing of particular contributors based on certain characteristics, such as decade of birth, occupational class, marital status. In addition, users can identify recurring themes in Directives by undertaking keyword searches.
The database also enables users of the archive to compare writers with the broader UK population, and the volunteering population of the UK (all writers are volunteers). We are in the process of undertaking some quantitative and qualitative analyses of the MOP writers, which can be accessed via our blogs, see Defining Mass Observation. These discuss the ways in which MOP writers are similar or different to the broader UK population, enabling users of the archive to make informed decisions about how and why they want to use the Archive, and which writers they might want to use.
Where does the data in the database come from?
The database was created by de-identifying, anonymising, and amalgamating different types of data that the Mass Observation Archive holds on its writers (metadata), cleaning this up, and bringing all this information into one place (see Defining Mass Observation Research Design).
i) Paper biographical datasheets filled out by writers - either in the early 1990s if they joined the MOP in the 1980s, or when they joined the MOP if this was after 1990. These provide information on occupation, marital status, year of birth, where the writer lived, and who the writer was living with, at the time of filling out the form. View biographical questionnaire
ii) An existing electronic database of Directives and which writers have responded to individual Directives
iii) De-identified electronic postcode data which has been used to identify which writers live in high, medium, or low deprivation areas
iv) An existing electronic database of writers’ gender and dates of birth, and when they joined and left the MOP
What information does the database contain about the writers socio-demographic characteristics?
The database contains information on a range of writers’ socio-demographic characteristics.
Birth cohort refers to the decade the writer was born. For example, ‘1920s’ means that the writer was born between 1920 and 1929.
Region represents the region within which the writer resided at the time of joining the MOP. The regions are classified using the Government Offices for the Regions (GOR) classification scheme. This classification has been subject to change over time, please note that the regions used reflect the GOR data for 2016. More information about this classification can be found in the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) ‘A Beginners Guide to UK Geography’.
Occupation The search option Occupation provides information on writers’ occupations reported in 1990, or at the time of joining the MO if this was later than 1990.
We have not provided actual descriptions of the jobs being done by MOP writers. The descriptions of jobs provided were too varied and too inconsistent to be useful for the purposes of this database. Instead, we have cleaned and recoded the data on occupation provided by the writers into ONS categories known as Standard Occupational Classifications (SOC) using Cascot software.
These are common classifications of occupational information for the UK where jobs are classified in terms of their skill level and skill content. Skill level is defined with respect to the duration of training and/or work experience required in order to perform the activities related to a job in a competent and efficient manner.
Jobs are classified into groups according to the concept of ‘skill level’ and ‘skill specialisation’. We have used the SOC categories for 1990 (SOC1990) and 2010 (SOC2010). These were used to capture changes in occupations, and in their classification, and to provide some comparability between occupations reported in 1980s and 1990s and later. Providing both occupational classifications gives researchers an opportunity to select respondents from a certain occupational group based on one of the classification schemes.
For more detail on the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) and how it relates to measures of class, please read the ONS guidelines.
Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD): Please use the IMD data with caution. This draws on postcode data provided by writers. However we do not have records of when these postcode data were provided and whether writers still live at these addresses. The IMDs provided have been calculated using the indices for 2010 (for addresses in England), 2012 (for addresses in Scotland) and 2014 (for addresses in Wales and Northern Ireland).
The IMD score indicates the level of multiple deprivation (7 measures of deprivation: income; employment; health/disability, living environment; education, skills and training; barriers in housing; crime) for the postcode area provided. High means the writer lives in an area of high multiple deprivation, low means the writer lives in an area of low deprivation. Please note that not every person in a highly deprived area will be deprived, or view themselves as deprived.
Given that the IMDs for different countries within the UK are from different years the IMDs for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not directly comparable.
For more information on this refer to the ONS document ‘ UK indices of multiple deprivation- a way to make comparisons across constituent countries easier’ .
Detailed information on measuring and interpreting the IMD in England is available in ‘ The English Indices of Deprivation 2010’
How have the writers recorded their relationships?
The relationship status of the Mass Observers has been recorded in the database by using the biographical forms completed by the Mass Observers in the early 1990s, or when they join the MOP, if this was after the 1990s. This form has the following tick boxes: single, married, separated, divorced, co-habiting, widowed and in a civil partnership. View biographical questionnaire
Since 2004 gay writers have been able to identify themselves as in a civil partnership, or co-habiting, and since 2014 as married or co-habiting. However, prior to this, some writers living with same-sex partners may have identified in different ways, some as ‘co-habiting’, and some as single (particularly older writers who had lived through times when male same-sex relationships were criminalised, and homophobia in the UK was rife). Therefore the term/measurement ‘marital status’ has had an inconsistent meaning over time, and we believe that some writers in same-sex relationships are missing from this particular record.
Has the ethnicity of writers been recorded?
No information about writers’ ethnicity has been recorded. Researchers looking for this information would need to visit the Archive to read the responses to the Mass Observation Directives.
How do I find out what Directives were sent to the Mass Observation panel?
You can find out which Directives were sent to the Mass Observation Project Panel by using the Directive section of the database. All of the Directives are listed in date order, but you can also search by title or a keyword using the description or keyword search fields.
You can also find a full list of the Directives and download a copy of the Directive questions sent to the Observers from the Mass Observation website.
Can I use the data longitudinally?
The database should enable users of the archive to access data in a number of ways, some of which provide snapshots of writers’ views at particular points in time (cross-sectional), and others which provide access to the writing of individual contributors over time (longitudinal):
What are the limitations of the database?
There are some limitations to this database:
1) Some of the data provided are derived from biographical datasheets filled in by writers, either in the early 1990s; or when writer joined the MOP, if this was after 1990. This means that these data relate to one time point only, and thus do not reflect any changes in writers’ characteristics after this time. (See FAQ – ‘Where does the data in the database come from?’ for more details)
2) The database itself has limitations. Its purpose is to enable users of the MOP to have a better understanding of the MOP writers; to provide confidence in the MOP as a source of data; and to help with selecting and sampling writers and writing. It is not built for very complex searches – for example, it is not possible to compare one cohort of writers with another. However it is possible to download and save the database into an excel format onto the user’s own pc or laptop. This will enable the user to manipulate data themselves.
3) There are missing data. Not all writers filled out all sections in the biographical datasheets. The database refers to missing data as ‘not answered’,
4) Writers described their occupations in very different and varied ways, which resulted in a huge and unwieldy list of different occupations. We have not listed the specific occupations of individual writers but instead we provide information on occupation using the Standard Occupational Class (SOC) classifications provided by the Office of National Statistics measure of class. (See FAQ – ‘Where does the data in the database come from?’ for more details)
5) The keyword search for directives provides key words from the text of the directives only. It does not provide key words from writers’ responses to these directives.
Can I export or save my searches?
You can export your searches into excel and save them on your own computer or device, but you cannot save your searches on the database in order to return to them on another day.
Getting no finds
If there are no results for your search it may be that you have too many filter terms. All the filter terms can be reset by pressing on the “Clear” button.