The qualitative data: the Mass Observation Archive

The qualitative data: the Mass Observation Archive

Since 1981, a national panel of volunteer writers has written for the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) in response to themed questions or ‘directives’ that are sent to them three times a year. Their responses provide a rich account of individuals’ activities and attitudes towards a range of topics over time, and provide insight into changes and continuities in people’s lives across time.  Although the MOA represents a unique source of longitudinal data, academics have tended to use it thematically rather than longitudinally.  This is one of the first research projects to use the MOA as a longitudinal data source.

How we are using the Mass Observation Archive:

Directives we are using

We have identified 15 directives that we intend to use across the 1981-2012 timeframe.

  • 1981       Unemployment
  • 1983       Work
  • 1984       Relatives, friends and neighbours
  • 1990       Voluntary organisations
  • 1990       Social divisions
  • 1995       Where you live
  • 1996       Unpaid work
  • 1997       Doing a job
  • 2004       Being part of research – ‘Why I write’
  • 2006       Core British values
  • 2008       The economic crisis
  • 2010       A working day
  • 2010       Belonging
  • 2010       Writers’ questionnaire
  • 2012       The Big Society

The writers we are using

We have identified a number of writers who have contributed the most across the time-frame, representing individuals for whom we have the most complete, longitudinal information.

From these we have selected 20 writers who have contributed to nearly all the directives we are looking at. These are writers who are currently in the 55-90 age-group.

We have also selected 20 writers who are younger writers, ten who were very active writers from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, and ten who were very active writers from the mid-1990s to the present.

The forty writers we are using are a mixed group of males and females, with mixed levels of education, and drawn from across the United Kingdom.

The writing of our forty mass observers is in a mixed format – some are handwritten scripts, some are type-written, and more recently some have begun to send in scripts to the archive, electronically.

The scripts have been digitised (approx. 450 scripts) and are in pdf format, and have been transcribed professionally. When the project finishes in late 2014, electronic versions of the pdf scripts and their transcriptions in Word scripts will be deposited with the MOA for re-use by others.

We are analysing the scripts using MAXQDAplus software which is a versatile analysis tool, which is a little similar to NVivo.

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