Mass-Observation encouraged noticing in England in the 1930s. It was created by Charles Madge, Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrisson to capture everyday life in what they boldly called "the science of ourselves."
There were lots of problems. Mass-Observation could be arty. It could be prurient. It was, in some cases, ideologically motivated. It was anthropological in the worst, most Rapaillean, sense of the term. (Harrisson called Chamberlain, returning from Munich, a "father-deity" on a "sky journey.")
Mass-Observation was also slumming. Sometimes the working class was studied because it was a working class.
In each case, Madge, Jennings and Harrisson noticed with a motive. They examine English life to repurpose it for the sake of art, politics or mischief.
But there was also a feeling for the detail qua detail. Mass-Observation captured simple truths. In the study of pub life in Bolton, someone on the M-O team saw that:
[P]eople drink faster…alone [than in a group], and the rhythm of the drinking is so deeply felt that they nearly always finish their rounds together, even if they’re blind. [in Crain, p. 80]
Mass-Observation cared to notice "which end of a cigarette people tap." (Crain, p. 77)
Perhaps the best thing about M-O was its wish to be comprehensive. The sheer profusion of the data meant that some details were let in that were not put out. Some lucky details remained mere.
Those of us who pursue our observation in the corridors of market research recognize the value of these details. It’s not the devil who resides here, but our God. Details are telling, and entire strategies and campaigns and brand legends have come from the slenderest of observations. Yes, of course, we mean to repurpose them, but this cannot happen well unless we catch them first.
The trick is noticing. And the trick to noticing is to notice widely. We won’t see it for what it is the first time around. So it’s good to look at everything. What did Johnson say, "read everything. Taste comes later"? Nous, too. See everything. Illumination, that’s the next round.
The trouble is we have been to a pub before. We’ve had a round or two. The combination of familiarity and commotion will make this still salient detail, that everyone finishes at once, hard to see. But to see it, and to see it for the simultaneity it is, and to see the simultaneity for what it is, till we have "laddered" up to some truth about drinking and beer, this what the game is for. Ethnography may be purposeful in the final analysis. It just can’t be this in the first instance.
Mass-Observation did sometimes make itself useful. It helped the British government test morale posters in the field. On the other hand, Jennings dismissed most of his films as "commercial."
For us, that’s the interesting part, our chance to see if this tiny piece of culture can turn into commerce before it returns again to culture. Or to put this is the language of John Wheeler, one of the first Englishman to see how our culture and commerce interact:
all the world choppeth and changeth, runneth and raventh after Marts, Markets and Merchandizing, so that all things come into Commerce and pass into Traffic.
Crain, Caleb. 2006. Surveillance Society: The Mass-Observation movement and the meaning of everyday life. The New Yorker. September 8, 2006, pp.76-82.
Hubble, Nick. 2006[?] Mass-Observation and Everyday Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan. [not consulted for this post]
Mass Observation. 1943. The Pub and the People. London: The Cresset Library. [there are two copies left on Amazon.com]
Wheeler, John. 1601/2004. A Treatise of Commerce. Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, p. 129.