Everyone, from Damon Albarn to Dickens has documented the daily grind. Dickens wrote pages and pages on the domestic and social everyday life of Victorian England, (literally, Bleak House clocks in at an eye straining 414,000 words) and in Jacob’s Room Virginia Woolf argued that ‘It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.’ Think about it – someone may die from a heart attack, but it’s the forty a day habit followed by a few swift pints over the last fifty years that was the main contributor. For every murder and car crash that happens inAlbert Square, the viewer only cares because they have spent 7.30pm every weekday evening in the cafe with a cuppa with the Eastenders characters.
Are daily habits really revealing, or would time be better spent looking at the big things? Surely a nation is made up of cataclysmic events like the bombs of a war, policies of a politician, not their love of a cup of tea or apparent addiction to queuing. It’s in societies where things happen, people that build up a society, habits that build form a person – when the habits and thoughts of a group coincide, react, interact, that is when changes happen.
Whilst we may currently dismiss the scrutiny of daily goings on as something best left to nosey market researchers and avid Big Brother viewers, it has long formed the basis of numerous isms and ologies. Think about the work of an archaeologist or historian – the burial of a comb with the Anglo-Saxon grave, the snapshot of life captured in the debris ofPompeii, the letters sent from the World War One front lines home to their sweethearts. And the application of the every day is not just valid when looking to the past – habits are highly revealing about the society in which we live.
A quick look at the Urban Dictionary reveals only two definitions of habit. 1.‘shit you’re mad used to doing’ 2. ‘a trend that will last’ This is the fundamental distinction, and the point at which your weird quirk moves into being a trend. Where the individual becomes subsumed into the mass is when people watching moves from a way to while away the time, even being nosey, to politically and socially useful anthropology.
A habit is unaware, it feels strange to perform self analysis whilst brushing teeth, indeed one would go mad. But looking at habits and patterns can be revelatory. In fact, 95% of everything we think, feel, and do is a result of learned habit, suggesting that the way society is set up perpetuates these habits, and thus by understanding these, statements can be formed about the collective, not only the individual.
This was the premise upon which Mass Observation was founded. Set up in 1937 by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings, the original purpose was to understand the true reaction of the population of the Coronation of George VI, in contrast to the press speculation that Britain’s love of the monarchy was forever tarnished as a result of Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallace Simpson.
Going far beyond this simple disproving the reporting of the press, Mass Observation eventually evolved into a group that believed that by gathering facts about the thoughts, habits and activities of ‘normal’ men, women and children, they could raise awareness about people who were believed to be otherwise silenced, whether that by the media’ portrayal, the government stifling through policy, or actual ignorance.
In capturing the ordinary habits, every day quirks, spoken anecdotes of the woman and man on the street, they hoped to create an ‘anthropology of everyday life’, in one swoop converting the daily cup of tea and gripes of a person into a social science, the application of which is capable of informing changes. Taken to its conclusion, a comprehensive overview of workers lives could provide a new basis for social democracy, and indeed the Mass Observation project has played a pivotal role in social and political policy.
Mass Observation’s work in observing reactions to the Keep Calm and Carry On campaign in World War Two was influential in shaping public policy, and the Organisation we regularly commissioned by the Ministry of Information. In post war Britaina study of saving habits were used by John Maynard Keynes successfully to argue for tax policy changes. The original Mass Observation Social Research Org ran from 1937 to the early 1950s, and the University of Sussex has been collecting information continuously since 1981, as well as running various ad hoc projects, and have informed studies and schools of thought on everything from immigration to education. Over the years studies have spanned topics: the original Bolton Working Class Life to the more recent Children’s Millennium Diaries, the boundary exploring ‘Everyday use of social relaxants and stimulants’ and the downright pervy ‘Sex surveyed, 1949 – 1994)
And as much as we may dismiss habits as everyday normality, and thus by default dull this desire to share our experiences may be innate. This first ‘Mass Observation Day’ of May 12th 1937 was replicated again in 2010, and the findings are a fascinating snapshot into the anxiety over the economy, the diversity of media habits, environmental concerns and the fragmentation of the family evening.
Advice to participants of the study was to ‘Write as much as you can about what you do, who you meet, what you talk about, what you eat and drink, what you buy or sell, what you are working on, the places you visit, the people you meet, the things you read, see and hear around you and of course what you yourself think.’
Sounds intense doesn’t it, but this is exactly what millions (750 million apparently) do on Facebook, Twitter and the like. Inviting people to judge us almost, although of course we dismiss those who do. The records we leave online, through our general media footprint mean that the habits of the masses are known to researchers, advertisers, governments and the like, and will be known to historians in the future far more easily than those of the Anglo Saxons.
Far from shying away from intrusion people flocked to be involved in Mass Observation day, a trend that Kevin McDonald exploited to create his recently critically acclaimed film ‘Life In A Day’ which captures the moments that made up the randomly chosen July 24th, 2010. Inspired by Mass Observation, when McDonald requested that people on Youtube send footage of ordinary moments in their day over 80,000 videos were sent in from around the globe. Through technology it is possible to look at the habits of the individual and the world, in every way that a community or group exists.
There must be something behind this. Surely we go about recording, editing and broadcasting our life stories through technology and social media for a reason, presumably that it says something about us, and this simply confirms what anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and a whole host of other ists, have known all along. In ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life’ Raoul Vaneigem states that ‘There are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies’, and I would certainly argue that my daily duties and the documenting of these online probably reveal more about myself than the box I tick for political leanings. Whilst we may use social media tools as a way of showing just how unique we are and illustrating our personalities, it in fact acts as a perfect aggregator of activity across people and places.
In their book ‘The You Code – What Your Habits Say About You’ Judi James & James Moore argue that the way you eat your feed sends out subliminal messages about your sexual habits, and the decoration of your desk helping has a big impact upon the likelihood of a promotion. We all judge by appearances, and habits are an extension of our appearance. The practice of taking a group of people, looking at their habits, and forming opinions from these is something that we all do. The British talk about the weather, the French can’t queue. Teenage girls all shriek into their phone, whilst their male counterparts can only grunt. If we can judge so much about the way we eat a sandwich, think what can be gleaned by escalating both the scale and depth of the research.
In Kate Fox’s ‘Watching The English’ she refers to their being a particular ‘grammar’ to the English way of life, and woe betide those who put a comma in the wrong place, by speaking on the London Underground, telephoning someone after 9pm, or eating a cheese sandwich without pickle. In Harrison’s original 1937 study of Bolton he aimed to ‘pick up the threads of mass life in Britain in much the same way as one does when visiting a little known country’. If we feel we can learn something about other populations, then why not our own?
Analysing every little action, from brushing your teeth to climbing into bed on the right hand side would of course drive you mad. But what about if you started to piece things together, think what it could reveal. Scientists have estimated that 95% of habits are learned – therefore presumably there’s a whole host of other people doing something similar, and these trends could be revelatory. Try it yourself. Rather than stereotype, conduct some of your own people watching – sorry mass observation – studies of your own. It might not lead to anything new and revolutionary, you may not alter social policy or change the world, but you might discover something new and interesting that whets your curiousity about the world and its inhabitants. Which is always a worthwhile outcome.
A Saturday spent in a Starbucks in a home town in Kent revealed a vast majority only purchasing normal tea or coffee, and the younger people were those tending to complain that there was nowhere else to go. Conclusion: Ashford needs more coffee shops, and the media has it wrong if they think young people are to blame for brand domination.
Based upon my small sample, and gleaned from scanning around, the average age of a festival goer seems to have increased, around 5% of people have children with them, and the number of wellies has decreased considerably. Conclusion: Festivals are becoming more mainstream and corporate, suggesting the era in which they were bywords for peace and protest is over. Festivals will collapse in the next few years.
By doing a ‘wordle’ of my facebook feed at 8.34pm on a Monday evening I discovered who had won the apprentice, the thoughts of a population of 18-30 year olds on the future of media following the News Of The World scandal, and that er…Pret A Manger are doing a new sandwich. Conclusion: I’m sticking to egg mayo.
See the original at http://www.whosjack.org/magazine-issue-52/ – flick to page 86