Archiving the COVID-19 pandemic in Mass Observation and Middletown

The second and third articles from this project have just been published in History of the Human Sciences (Volume 36, Issue 2; see and They should be open access. Here are the abstracts:

Archiving the COVID-19 pandemic in Mass Observation and Middletown

The COVID-19 pandemic generated debates about how pandemics should be known. There was much discussion of what role the human sciences could play in knowing – and governing – the pandemic. In this article, we focus on attempts to know the pandemic through diaries, other biographical writing, and related forms like mass photography. In particular, we focus on the archiving of such forms by Mass Observation in the UK and the Everyday Life in Middletown (EDLM) project in the USA, and initial analyses of such material by scholars from across the human sciences. Our main argument is that archiving the pandemic was informed by, and needs viewing through, the history of the human sciences – including the distinctive histories and human sciences of Mass Observation and Middletown. The article finishes by introducing a Special Section that engages with archiving the pandemic in two senses: the archiving of diaries and related forms by Mass Observation and the EDLM project, and the archiving of initial encounters between researchers and this material by History of the Human Sciences. The Special Section seeks to know the pandemic from the human sciences in the present and to archive knowing the pandemic from the human sciences for the future.

Seeing like an epidemiologist? Mobilising people against COVID-19

Diaries and other materials in the Mass Observation Archive have been characterised as intersubjective and dialogic. They have been used to study top-down and bottom-up processes, including how ordinary people respond to sociological constructs and, more broadly, the footprint of social science in the 20th century. In this article, we use the Archive’s COVID-19 collections to study how attempts to govern the pandemic by mobilising ordinary people to see like an epidemiologist played out in the United Kingdom during 2020. People were asked to think in terms of populations and groups; rates, trends, and distributions; the capacity of public services; and complex systems of causation. How did they respond? How did they use the statistics, charts, maps, concepts, identities, and roles they were given? We find evidence of engagement with science plural; confident and comfortable engagement with epidemiological terms and concepts; sceptical and reluctant engagement with epidemiological subject positions; use of both scientific and moral literacy to negotiate regulations and guidance; and use of scientific literacy to compare and judge government performance. Governing the pandemic through scientific literacy was partially successful, but in some unexpected ways.

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