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Observation. Week 5 Fine-grained and Mass Observation. Micro and Mass Observation. Rosie Flewitt’s fine-grained multi-modal analysis The Mass Observation Organisation and Archive. Flewitt (2006) Using Video to Investigate Pre-School Classroom Interaction.

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Week 5

Fine-grained and Mass Observation

micro and mass observation
Micro and Mass Observation

Rosie Flewitt’s fine-grained multi-modal analysis

The Mass Observation Organisation and Archive

flewitt 2006 using video to investigate pre school classroom interaction
Flewitt (2006) Using Video to Investigate Pre-School Classroom Interaction

Ethnographic video case studies of three year olds communicating at home and in pre-school playgroup

  • From the observations Flewitt produced

grounded evidence in detailed interpretation of

the construction and negotiation of meaning

  • Challenged language-based approaches to classroom interaction

Investigating how and why learners choose different modes to explore and express meaning

  • Modes can include visual, verbal, written, gestural and musical resources for communication. They also include various "multimodal" ensembles of any of these modes (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001).
  • Zoom in on individual children’s use of different communicative modes
  • Zoom out and pan across children over time and across different social settings
pp 36 to 43
pp. 36 to 43
  • One event
  • Two minutes
  • Three children
figure 7 p 42
Figure 7 p.42

Image for use in lecture here

implications of visual data for theory building
Implications of Visual Data for Theory Building

Flewitt aimed to show how,

Different representations of the same data tell different stories about different participants’ lived experiences and researcher subjectivity,

but also how including the visual in research analysis and making links between the different media used in data collection builds up ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz 1973) that afford readers of the research text complex understandings of educational processes (2006, p. 45).


By studying in minute detail the complexities of children’s lives through interviews, audio and video observations in the two settings at home and playgroup, the study revealed how the children began to grasp unconsciously the rationale of series of patterned behaviours that corresponded to pre-school structures and routines, activity types and interpersonal relationships, illustrating how they became apprentices in particular communities of practice largely though observation and imitation rather than through discourse (p.46)

mass observation
Mass Observation

Mass Observation was a

social research organisation

established in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrison, journalist Charles Madge and documentary film-maker Humphrey Jennings.

It was a response to the British establishment’s perceived misrepresentation of the ‘man in the street’, Mass Observation sought to capture an “anthropology of ourselves” (Madge and Harrison, 1939)


Prolific during the Second World War a national panel of volunteer writers replied to questionnaires and submitted diaries

Image for use in lecture here

whilst paid investigators observed, recorded and detailed everyday life, conversations and situations.

Snapshots of herself sent in to

Mass Observation by a volunteer diarist

tribulations of a photographer
Tribulations of a photographer

What do you think you’re doing? My customers don’t want any photographs taken in here, nor do I. It’s usual to ask the manager’s permission’.


Daily Mirror feature

6 December 1938

Image for use in lecture here

catalogue of projects
Catalogue of projects
  • Behaviour of people at war memorials
  • Shouts and gestures of motorists
  • The aspidistra cult
  • Anthropology of football pools
  • Bathroom behaviour
  • Beards, armpits, eyebrows
  • Anti-semitism
  • Distribution , diffusion and significance of the dirty joke
  • Funerals and undertakers
  • Female taboos about eating
  • The private lives of midwives

30 January 1937

  • The primacy of reality
  • They argued that the camera showed what is ‘really there’ in the texture of everyday life. Art could disregard it.
  • A democratically significant choice
  • As surrealists they insisted that images from the subconscious, triggered by things seen in the streets must be given unmediated expression
  • Aiming for social therapy
  • Aiming for social transformation

Mass Observation has always assumed that its untrained Observers would be subjective cameras, each with his or her own distortion. They will tell us not what society is like but what it looks like to them’ (First Years’s Work, p. 66)

On Blackpool Pier 1937

discussion report on juvenile delinquency
Discussion Report on Juvenile Delinquency

I suggested at a Housemasters’ meeting that all boys ought to be asked to write a diary on ‘Christmas at Borstal’. The Governor put forward the opinion that it would be a very difficult thing to have done.

‘You see’ he said, ‘many boys are incapable of writing anything, and if they wrote nothing, disciplinary action would have to be taken’ (Wilcock1949, p. 109).

discussion report on juvenile delinquency1
Discussion Report on Juvenile Delinquency

The ideal stand for a Borstal boy to make is, either to fight desperately the authority which holds him, or to accept that authority and put one’s whole weight behind them. It is very hard to take up either of these stands on entering Borstal. Usually there is neutrality, a compromise (Wilcock 1949 pp. 119-120)

discussion report on juvenile delinquency2
Discussion Report on Juvenile Delinquency

The interesting history of inmate T…

Left fatherless at the age of ten, he was placed in a home for orphans. At fifteen he was returned to his mother, and started work. Not content with his lot, he went off tramping, and was arrested as a wanderer with no fixed abode and sent to a reformatory, from where he absconded and was in consequence sentenced to ‘three years in Borstal’(Wilcock 1949 p. 126).

mass observation a self survey
Mass Observation = a self-survey

AUDIO FILE 1937 2012

  • What did the Lecturer in English Language do?
  • What did the school girl do on Coronation Day 1937?
  • What did the 28 year old do on the Diamond Jubilee 2012?
1981 mass observation project revived
1981 Mass Observation Project Revived

A national panel of volunteer writers responding to open- ended directives was revived as the, with a specific mission to offer “ordinary people” the chance to share writings about their lives and to establish a unique qualitative data, set to help researchers understand everyday life in the late 20th Century and beyond

(Sheridan et al, 2000).

mass observation directives
Mass Observation Directives

genetics and cloning, gambling, body image, being overweight, homosexuality and families, the death of Princess Diana, the events of September 11th and the royal wedding, “staying well” (1998) “pace of life” (1992), relationships between health, sickness and work, transport, juvenile delinquency

challenges and opportunities of mass observation
Challenges and Opportunities of Mass Observation

What is meant by ordinary?

Interpreting the reflections of a diverse but self-selecting sample.

Challenges Opportunities

Validity Validates peoples’ lived experience

Inaccuracy of recall Authenticity

Potential for fictionalisation Rich and diverse data

Unexpected responses from open questions

More rounded picture of peoples’ lives

Representativeness of the sample

Can be re-read in a different contexts

“about as valuable as a chimpanzee’s tea party at a zoo”

For a thorough summary of issues involved see Pollen (2013)

mass personal

When I am writing to the Archive I am expressing myself as an individual, a personality in my own right, not a cipher or a statistic to be manipulated and aggregated

(Pollen, 2013, p. 222).

capturing wide perspective why choose mass observation today
Capturing wide perspectiveWhy Choose Mass Observation today?

Surveys – Teaching unions ATL (2011),

NASUWT (2011), NUT (2009)

DfE - National Foundation for Educational Research Parent and Pupil Voice Panels (2011 and 2013)

Market research opinion polls – Opinium (2013) best days of your life?

YouGov (2013) parents’ dissatisfaction with three years of Coalition reform

capturing wide perspective why choose mass observation today1
Capturing wide perspectiveWhy Choose Mass Observation today?

Surveys have closed and pre-determined foci

directed towards samples of stakeholders.

Market research broader reach of what ‘ordinary people’ think.

What do different interest groups think?

Not the origins and nature of their attitudes


Thompson chose Mass Observation because it offers

‘alternative and potentially richer opportunities to examine the depth, breadth and idiosyncratic nature of “ordinary people’s” views on educational issues’

(2013 p.3)


Thompson, S. (2013) What Do the Masses Think? Exploring Contemporary Attitudes Towards Schools, Teachers and Pupils Through The Mass Observation Project BERAConference4th September 2013

  • Status of the teaching profession
  • Impact of policy changes
  • Nature of assessment

Here we have discussion of current research using the Mass Observation 2012 Education Directive commissioned by Dr Simon Thompson, Director of Initial Teacher Education University of Sussex, with his kind permission for use in the lecture.

response from c4371
Response from C4371

Here we have discussion of current research using the Mass Observation 2012 Education Directive commissioned by Dr Simon Thompson, Director of Initial Teacher Education University of Sussex, with his kind permission for use in the lecture.


Mass Observation might be as well described as personal observation

  • Visit the Mass Observation Archive in Brighton


so what
So what?

Maybe by looking into someone’s life at that depth, every minute of every day, they’ll find out something about all people

Reverent Shields interview in The Seattle Times 1994

AUDIO FILE ‘Sound Portrait’ US National Public Radio

web cams
Web cams

These webcams were found automatically through a variety of clever search techniques and update several times a day. Their owners may or may not have intended for them to be public, but they obviously are. Some of them are security cams in companies or semi-public places. If you click on a webcam, you can see a live video feed, plus comments and ratings and other information.


wearable cameras
Wearable cameras

24th December - World Sousveillance Day




Calder, A. and Sheridan, D. (1984) Speak for Yourself: a Mass-Observation Anthology, 1937-49 London: Cape 1984 942.084/CAL (pp.16-44 on LN)

Featherstone, G and Pyle, K. (2011) NFER Teacher Voice Omnibus February 2011 Survey: The English Baccalaureate, Training and Development Agency for Schools, NFER/TDA

Flewitt, R. (2005). Using Multimodal Analysis to Unravel a Silent Child’s Learning. Early Childhood Practice: The Journal for Multi-Professional Partnerships, 7(2), pp. 5–16. http://oro.open.ac.uk/2721/1/Flewitt%2C_2005%2C_Multimodal_analysis_and_silent_child.pdf(on LN)

Flewitt, R. (2006) ‘Using Video to Investigate Pre-school Classroom Interaction: Education Research, Assumptions, and Methodological Practice’ Visual Communication 5:1 pp.25-50 (on LN) *

Geertz, C. (1973) ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in C. Geertz (ed.) The Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

Houssart, J. (2007) They Don’t Use Their Brains, What a Pity: School Mathematics Through the Eyes of the Older Generation, Research in Mathematics Education, (9) 1, pp. 47-63


Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. (2001) Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.

Pollen, A. (2013) ‘Research Methodology in Mass Observation Past and Present: ‘Scientifically, about as valuable as a chimpanzee’s tea party at the zoo’?’ History Workshop Journal January 20 2013 Oxford: Oxford University Press doi: 10.1093/hwj/dbs040

Sheridan, D. Street, B. andBloome, D. (2000) Writing Ourselves: Mass-Observation andLiterary Practices, New York, Hampton Press

Thompson, S. (2013) What Do the Masses Think? Exploring Contemporary Attitudes Towards Schools, Teachers and Pupils Through The Mass Observation Project BERAConference4th September 2013

Wilcock, H. (1949) Report on Juvenile Delinquency London: The Falcon Press 364.36/WIL (Chapter XI ‘Institutions’ pp. 108 – 127 on LN)

surveys and opinons
Surveys and Opinons
  • Association of Lecturers and Teachers (ATL), (2011) Academies Survey Available at: http://www.atl.org.uk/Images/Academies%20Survey%202011%20-%20redacted.pdf
  • National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) (2010) Teacher Wellbeing Survey. Available at: http://www.nasuwt.org.uk/InteractiveZone/SurveysPollsandForums/Survey/
  • National Union of Teachers (NUT) (2009) NUT OFSTED Special Measures Survey Report Available at: http://www.teachers.org.uk/taxonomy/term/1516
  • Opinium (2013) Survey Results, School Days: the best days of your life? Available at: