Guide Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self

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Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self Hardcover – 14 Jan In Nine Wartime Lives, James Hinton uses diaries kept by nine 'ordinary' people in wartime Britain to re-evaluate the social history of the Second World War, and to reflect on the.
Table of contents

But, when it comes to personal matters, Hinton makes a distinction between male and female respondents. The women, Hinton insists, were more self-revealing and in a sense more revolutionary, using war service or diary-writing to expand their horizons or find a measure of emotional fulfilment. By contrast, the two younger women — Lillian Rogers and Eleanor Humphries — avidly pursued personal and sexual fulfilment but had almost no social commitments. Rogers spent much of her time cultivating intense flirtations with men, wanting not to sleep with them but to bag them as dance partners; Humphries, the wife of a wealthy businessman, was in thrall to her domineering husband and spent her days catering to his every need.

Nine Wartime Lives makes an irrefutable case for the importance of the diaries, but they form only a small slice of the MO repository and tell us almost nothing about the organisation itself. It shows that MO was chaotic and polycentric from the start — indeed, at its founding it was really two loosely linked projects.

The second was based in the Blackheath home of Madge and his wife and fellow poet Kathleen Raine, where a skeleton staff recruited volunteer observers and analysed the responses they sent back. The war brought new opportunities, but it also brought personal tensions to a head. Harrisson was chaotic, noisy, authoritarian and usually unwashed, and by , Madge had had enough. Harrisson, now with a sizeable wage bill to meet the staff peaked at 22 in July , cadged for Ministry of Information contracts and advertising industry commissions; he got funding from the Board of Deputies of British Jews for a study of anti-Semitism, but spent the money on something else.

He kept the books coming on the outbreak of war, on attitudes towards housing, on the culture of the factory , but they elicited criticism as well as interest. However, Hinton has also counted the directives and file reports, and shows how rapidly the work of volunteer data collection declined after Harrisson ceded control: from topic collections in , to in , to in ; from file reports in , to in , to 78 in Most of the books were written before his exit. He insists that it was less sloppy than some social scientists have claimed.

It did offer observers some training; Harrisson did cross-check data for bias. Yet its real innovation was not in introducing the practice of anthropological observation in Britain but rather in developing the use of a volunteer panel — and, even more important, in asking panellists to keep diaries. He was entirely right. Mass Observation, Hinton concludes sharply, was not a modernist project or a social movement as Nick Hubble has argued ; its volunteers were not harbingers of a new scientific mentality as Mike Savage has claimed.

What distinguished its participants, instead, was their willingness to devote time and effort to solitary self-reflection, a practice symptomatic, even generative, of a culture ever more committed to individual self-realisation. It also produced the archive to which they would so frequently turn.

InFocus: Mass Observation -- a brief history of today

Seven Lives from Mass Observation is marketed as a successor to Nine Wartime Lives , and the structure and the pleasures it offers are much the same. Diarists are again chosen for the quality of their writing and not their representativeness, though Hinton has made an effort to strike a better balance in terms of gender four women, three men and class.

We have Sam, a wealthy banker; Caroline, the wife of a businessman; Janet, a teacher; Stella, a social worker; Helen, a youth worker and wife of an RAF officer; Len, a mechanic; and Bob, a long-distance lorry driver. But all are white hardly a given in this period and the age range is narrower.

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His choice does succeed, though, in providing us with a portrait of a particular generation as they navigated — or, more accurately, looked back in the s on how they had navigated — a period of rapid social change. Hinton is especially sensitive to the way the new movements of the s and s — the sexual revolution, university expansion, feminism — affected self-understanding and social roles.


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Once again the women prove the more sensitive conductors for those changes. Just as social movements changed the lives of the observers, so too did the economic crises of the s and the neoliberal policies of subsequent governments. But Bob a lorry driver for state-owned British Road Services , Len a skilled mechanic and later transport manager for a local authority and Janet, a teacher in London, were all made redundant or forced into early retirement when public services came under pressure or were privatised.

Hinton pushes historians to rethink historical narratives by including the biographies of ordinary lives I personally look forward to future scholarship based around the stories Hinton presents here and the scores of others waiting to be told. Added to basket. Jane Austen at Home. Lucy Worsley. Tastes of Honey. Selina Todd. Winds of Change. Peter Hennessy. Peter Moore. Anne Lister. Learning from the Germans. Susan Neiman.

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