Mass Observation, Quantified Self and Human Nature

I woke up this morning to a great feature (at 7:38am) on Radio 4 about the 75th birthday of the Mass Observation project. The project was founded in 1937 by a team of young researchers with the intention of creating an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. Both through professional observers and the large scale recruitment of respondents from the public, it aimed to capture the everyday with a particular kind of approach which, to the best of my knowledge, had never been attempted before. As Liz Stanley describes the approach in her book ‘Sex Surveyed’:

it saw research into any community or activity as an essentially collaborative activity, not necessarily in the details of being carried out but certainly in bringing together and using many different accounts in writing about such research. It also recognized that the informal aspects of research – just living and being in the context of study – could be as important in gaining knowledge as those activities defined as ‘research’ in the narrow sense. Relatedly, it made a fundamental distinction between obtrusive and unobtrusive research techniques and opted very firmly for the latter, eschewing direct questioning and instead focusing on ‘follows’ and ‘overheards’, in which interesting persons or groups were trailed, and overheard conversations were recorded in as much detail as possible. In doing so, it focused on ordinary life, on the rhythms and patterns of the ordinary at home’, which it argued remained largely unknown to social science research. (pg 20)

The obvious observation to make here is the extent to which the large scale uptake of social media affords new opportunities for such ‘follows’ and ‘overheards’. Furthermore the infrastructure for the participatory aspects of the approach have been radically transformed by social media: the logistical costs involved in soliciting and processing contributions from respondents have been radically reduced e.g. private blogs would clearly fit.

However what struck me this morning while listening to the feature on Radio 4 was the extent to which the ethos of Mass Observation was so ahead of its time and so congruent with the emerging ethics of social media. I don’t just mean this in terms of construing the research process in a collaborative way, although this is no doubt important. But in terms of what motivates people to respond and participate: not just the confessional but the possibilities for self-clarification and self-knowledge which participation in a project like this offers.

I’ve long been fascinated both by the Quantified Self movement and, if this isn’t a self-defeatingly awkward expression, my own lack of desire to participate in it despite my intellectual fascination with it. It’s the idea of “self-knowledge through numbers”… it just doesn’t do it for me. But the idea of a grassroots communal exploration of the possibilities which digital tools afford as technologies of the self  is very much the sort of thing I’m interested in. I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of a qualified self, for lack of a better term i.e. self-knowledge through words. What would it look like? The thought that struck me this morning was that my images of what ‘Mass Observation 2.0’ and Qualified Self would look like are actually very similar: a communal and participatory exploration of what it means to be human in the 21st century?

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