Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the poet Charles Madge and the film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Their aim, stated in a letter to the New Statesman, was to create an "anthropology of ourselves" - a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain.
Harrisson team of observers, diarists and investigators first big project was their study of the life and people of Bolton (the Worktown Project). Investigators went into a variety of public situations: meetings, religious occasions, sporting and leisure activities, in the street, in pubs and at work, and recorded people's behaviour and conversation in as much detail as possible. The material they produced is a varied documentary account of life in Britain. A great deal of it is now held at the University of Sussex.
Mass Observation continued to operate throughout the Second World War and into the early 1950s, producing a series of books about their work as well as thousands of reports. Gradually the emphasis shifted away from social issues towards consumer behaviour and consumer research In 1949, Mass Observation was registered as a limited company.
Sussex University gives a key to various 'M-O' codes
“Directs”: responses on a theme elicited directly by M-O investigators from members of the public
“Indirects” = responses on a theme elicited by a M-O investigators in the course of an informal conversation with a member of the public
“Overheards” = snatches of conversation gathered by a M-O investigators without the person being aware of being recorded
“Follows” = descriptions of a person’s behaviour while being followed by a M-O investigator (used mostly in pre-war work)
A simple system of coding was used for visual identification of social class:
A “Rich people”
B “The Middle Classes”
C “Artisans and skilled workers”
D “Unskilled workers and the least economically or educationally trained of our people"
Thus “F30B” refers to a thirty year old middle class woman (F=female) and “M20D” refers to a twenty-year old unskilled man. This code is listed at the beginning of the M-O publication War Factory (1943).
In our recent M-O posting about the Selby Oak by-election the 'inv' notes of an election worker: 'His speech, manner and appearance indicate class V, but he appears to have a position of some importance in the aircraft industry and drives a Vauxhall car.' Possibly a misprint for C or a new category not decoded by Sussex.