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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

An Archive of Feeling? Mass Observation and the Mid-Century Moment


This working paper has two objectives: one is methodological and the other is empirical. First it explores the issues at stake in accessing feelings in the past. How do historians ‘get at’ emotion and what feeling-evidence is available to us? Here I am particularly interested in identifying sources that allow access to the feelings of ‘ordinary’ people and to the messiness of everyday emotional life. I will focus in particular upon the material generated by the British social investigative organisation – Mass Observation – in the middle years of the twentieth century. In the second part of the paper I will demonstrate how a small sample of this Mass Observation material – discursive responses to open-ended questionnaires sent to a panel of volunteer writers in May and August 1945 – can be used to enhance our understanding of the British transition from war to peace. Specifically, I will use Mass Observation material to illuminate the work that emotion did and was called upon to do. I will argue that emotion-management was a powerful frame for individual as well as public reconstruction narratives; that individual feeling and experience was valorised within this context; and that an emerging ‘right to feel’ was an important aspect of a broader post-1945 rights discourse.

Insights Paper