Noticing 102

Mass_observation_1 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. 

References

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. 

3 thoughts on “Noticing 102”

  1. Now that is a perfectly formed Grant McCracken post. I’ll keep an eye out for that little gem of book.

  2. For an excellent anthropological perspective of daily english life, see Watching the English by Kate Fox. It is so devastatingly observant as to make this englishman uncomfortable.

    I take issue with the notion that ‘the rhythmn of drinking is so deeply felt that they nearly always finish their drinks together, even if they’re blind.’ There is less sentimentality present in the observation than there are the forces of prudent economic return on investment. The ritual of ’round drinking’ requires that in order to get one’s money’s worth over the course of an evening, one has to consume at a pace matching the timing and speed at which rounds are bought. This explains why people finished their drinks at the same time. But how does this explain how a blind would know? Time for a social experiment. Next time you’re at a bar drinking with friends, keep your eyes closed the entire time while participating in the conversation. Hearing becomes sharpened when the visual sense is denied. I imagine it won’t be hard to tell the pace at which your compatriots are drinking (either momentary pauses in banter as people slurp or the sound of the glass being put on the counter) and follow suit in a deeply felt manner.

  3. With regard to the timescales of pint drinking, for most of the 20th century the UK had tight licensing laws – pubs shut at 11pm (11.30 at weekends).

    Therefore everyone knew they had to get a move on if they were to make the best of the evening. I think that was what led to a subconscious idea of how long it should take to drink a pint (if you get to the pub at 7 and it shuts at 11 and you want to get five pints in, you have 48 minutes per pint).

    This “speed drinking” has developed a cultural momentum of its own – now we have pubs open 24 hours a day, but instead of drinking becoming a more leisurely activity the phenomenon of binge-drinking has developed (people still drink at the same speed but do for longer).

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