Mass Observation at Ball State University


Student: Patricia Brand

Course: Undergraduate and Masters’ level History and Anthropology


“I just love the Mass Observation site.”


“I said to people here, it would be fantastic for sociology, psychology, politics, anthropology, history…it could be used across so many disciplines.”


As an undergraduate, Patricia used printed versions of diary extracts from Nella Last to look at women and volunteerism in Britain as part of her work for Anthropology. She then broadened her study to look at volunteerism among British and American women more generally during World War Two. At this point, she started using microfilm, particularly the Post War Hopes topic collection.


As a Masters’ student, Patricia used the online version of Mass Observation, this time for the history portion of her degree. She researched food and clothes rationing, intending to integrate this with her existing anthropology work at a later date. She also wanted to bring her knowledge of Mass Observation into the Middletown Studies project run by the English department.


For her work, Patricia highlighted how unusual it is to find a body of material covering how people were feeling, their opinions and how they reacted emotionally to events and news. Having material broken down into categories by age, class, gender, location etc. is very useful for sociologists. She also highlighted the ‘Dreams Topic Collection’ as golden for anyone studying psychology.


Patricia suggested that Topic Collections are the ideal place to start, as they help synthesise the information and are “brilliantly organised”. Patricia noted that many undergraduates struggle to sift and analyse large quantities of material – whether it is from a textbook or a website. This is the biggest skill they learn at college, and proficiency is only obtained by practising it through assignments. The Topic Collections really help by giving them a starting point, and showing them how raw data has been sifted and summarised by past investigators. Undergraduate training is focused almost entirely on secondary sources, with primary being more heavily used at Masters’ level.


For Patricia’s own work, she prefers exhaustive trawling of the material by browsing documents and images. She also prefers to download the documents and work with them as PDFs.


More information on Mass Observation Online is available here.