Month: January 2014

The life-course and individual writing for the mass observation project 1981-2012

Timeframe for qualitative analysis

We have chosen to look at the responses of 40 MOP writers’ to 15 directives (themed questions) across the thirty year time-frame, 1981-2012.

The directives chosen are not spread evenly across the timeframe. This is because we are interested in responses to directives that relate to volunteering, work, unpaid work and attitudes towards state provision of welfare and the meeting of social need (see diagram).

There are up to 15 pieces of interspersed and bunched writing by each individual across the 1981-2012 timeframe (see).


Reading Mass Observation Project (MOP) writers’ responses to directives

The project aims to follow 40 individuals who have been writing continuously for the MOP over the last thirty years.  There is complexity in following an individual through time. Each time an individual writes for the MOP, that individual will have changed since the last time he or she wrote – whether the gap between writing is a day, a week, a month, a year, or several years. (It is worth noting breaks in writing in individual documents when trying to understand changes in tone or perspective).

Changes and continuities within an individual’s life-course shape an individual’s identities, view-points, and the way in which an individual will give meaning to and recall an event. In some contexts life-course changes can lead to the re-structuring of view-points, recall, remembering and narratives of the past (Neale and Flowerdew 2003; Lindsey, 2004 [i]).  When researching individuals’ writing we will need to note that the texts, and the voices and identities speaking within these texts are influenced by dynamic processes such as ageing, small or large changes to health, unique events that are personal to the writer, and by the positions, spaces and relationships that the writer reprises, takes up, or refutes, within his or her social networks, communities and cultures.

The complexity of changing identities, changing perspectives, changing memories produced by each writer in each account, is further complicated by the temporal gaps that exist between the selected responses to MOP directives. We have noted changes in voice, recall, identity and perspective between accounts.  Writers may discuss life-course changes in their responses to other directives that we haven’t looked at. However the study is reliant on observing references, or hints on change, that are embedded in the text. For example, the appearance of the label ‘widower’ at the top of a piece of writing; or the brief mention of an argument with a daughter mid-piece. At other times, there are no obvious clues to why a shift in voice, view point or identity has taken place.

Mass Observation writers and their relationship with the reader

As well as taking into account the shifting identities and voice of individual writers between and sometimes within texts, we also note that each individual piece of writing is a ‘produced account’ (Edwards and Weller, 2012, p.215[ii]). These offer a variety of standpoints, perspectives, tensions, and dynamics, which relate to the writer’s relationship with the Mass Observation Project, the directives, and the imagined reader. They might include:

  • A personal engagement (or lack of engagement, or disengagement) with, and response to, the text of a directive, and the questions posed in a directive.
  • A piece of writing with shifting dynamics that incorporate responses, feelings and views at the time of writing – the now – with recall of the recent past, the long past, and the re-structured past, and imaginations of the future (palimpsestic writing).
  • An awareness of, and imagination of, the gaze of the reader – and the construction of an identity that meets that gaze.
  • Changes in tone that might relate to shifting awareness of the reader.
  • An attempt to influence and shape the views and personal responses of the reader.
  • A written conversation with an imagined reader or audience – this might be someone currently working in the Mass Observation Archive, a journalist, someone reading the writing in the future, an academic.

We, the readers and researchers also produce a personal response to, and analysis of, MOP writing.  Our interpretations and analyses are produced through the lens of our own identities, our emerging relationship with the writer, and the questions we bring to the reading.

The challenge in reading and analysing MOP writing for this research project is to find analytical tools that can help the researchers to:

  • See and move beyond personal lenses of analyses when interpreting text.
  • Unthread the complexity and palimpsestic nature of the texts that MOP writers produce.
  • Bring time, texture and longitudinal awareness into our analyses (Neale and Flowerdew 2003).
  • Maintain the integrity of longitudinal analysis whilst working iteratively and in dialogue with the quantitative analysis.
  • Identify when synchronic/cross-sectional/snapshot analysis are valid and useful tools in order to enable iterative working with the quantitative data

In our next blog we will discuss some of the analytical tools we are using for longitudinal and cross-sectional analysis of MOP texts, and for bringing their analysis into dialogue with the quantitative analysis.

[i] Bren Neale and Jennifer Flowerdew ‘Time, texture and childhood: The contours of longitudinal qualitative research’ in International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 6:3, 189-199

[ii] Rose Lindsey 2004, ‘Remembering Vukovar, forgetting Vukovar: constructing national identity through the memory of catastrophe in Croatia’ in Gray P. and Oliver K. The Memory of Catastrophe, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[iii] Ros Edwards and Susie Weller 2012 ‘Shifting analytic ontology: using I-poems in qualitative longitudinal research’ in Qualitative Research 12 (2) pp.202-217