Beyond compliance: Good citizenship during the COVID-19 pandemic

I’ve spent 2022 writing up three papers Clive and I discussed during 2021. The first of these has just been published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (see The article should be open access. Here is the abstract:

In the UK, discussion of good citizenship during the COVID-19 pandemic largely focused on compliance and non-compliance with government rules. In this article, we offer an alternative point of focus. Pandemic governance proceeded not only through rules/morality, but also through freedom/ethics. Good citizenship, therefore, involved practical reasoning in response to situations. We demonstrate this using diaries and other forms of writing collected by Mass Observation during the first six months of the pandemic. Responses to government rules and guidance varied by situation. Many people found governance through freedom/ethics confusing and burdensome. Faced by ethical dilemmas, they managed risks and responsibilities by deliberating, weighing justifications, and sometimes falling back on rules of thumb or heuristics. Discussion of good citizenship during future emergencies would benefit from a greater focus on situations, dilemmas, and justifications.

How do people respond to public health measures? Ordinary ethics during the COVID-19 pandemic

Clive and I wrote this on 22 December. We agreed to post it in January, when people would be back on Twitter, so that is what I’m doing. The post summarises a full-length paper we submitted for review in mid-December.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been presented as a biopolitical event that extends and transforms neoliberal modes of surveilling and governing the conditions of life and death. Consistent with such a view, debates about the efficacy of public health strategies during the pandemic – non-pharmaceutical policy interventions aimed at changing behaviours e.g. rules or guidelines on handwashing, wearing face coverings, social distancing, self-isolating – have often focused on the problem of compliance: whether people are complying, and will continue to comply, with rules and guidelines.

One starting point for this post was a concern that such framings obscure how people might navigate public issues using practical reasoning; how people might respond to the pandemic less with compliance or resistance, and more by enacting their ordinary capacities for ethical action. Our thinking, here, is informed by writing on the anthropology of ethics by people like Michael Lambek, Veena Das, and Didier Fassin, and especially the idea of ordinary ethics. In this field, the ethical refers to those dimensions of action in which dilemmas, cares, and predicaments are experienced as problems of how to exercise freedom in accountable and responsible ways. The ethical arises, therefore, not only in extraordinary, dramatic moments requiring explicit, deliberative judgement, but also in practices of everyday life, which are scenes of negotiation, riven by dilemmas, doubts, threats, and vulnerabilities.

To trace the forms of practical reasoning used by people responding to public health measures during the pandemic, we analysed a sample of biographical writing – diaries, letters, and other forms – collected by the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) from thousands of residents of the United Kingdom. Here is an example extract from the beginning of one diary, kept on 12th May 2020:

Today my husband and I are arguing about whether he can play golf or not. The government advice is that they can play in pairs but he has also been told he is still shielding […] He does not feel that going to play golf on his own and having no contact with anyone is going to increase his risk […] I want him to be able to enjoy his sport but I feel worried about the risks. It felt easier when no-one could play golf or travel or work. Now there is so much to navigate and so much to decide. My mum is already talking about me visiting them again. But it is 200 miles by train […] and that exposes me to a whole lot of risk. ‘But what is our exit plan?’ my husband asks. I am somehow expected to know, to somehow be the grown up in all of this. He seems to expect me to set the rules for him and yet he doesn’t really want that. I no longer know what to say to him about it all. ‘Yes it is unfair that you cannot go out and yes it is unfair that your asthma means you may not recover if you get the virus and yes I’d feel very guilty if I was to bring the virus home.’

In this extract, ‘compliance’ is rendered conditional on maintaining personal relationships. The diarist felt under pressure to manage both risks to herself on public transport and responsibilities to her mother (demanding a visit). She felt responsible for protecting her shielding husband and guilty for numerous things, from stopping him enjoying his sport in the present, to potentially bringing the virus home in the future. Her concerns included not only managing her own and family members’ exposure to risk from interactions in public spaces, but also how she or they might be a risk to others.

In general, we analysed sources in the MOA for grammars of responsibility: the ways that people discuss publically circulated moral codes; reason about whether and how to follow rules and recommendations; reason about what is justifiable and practicable; and give content and meaning to public discourses in ways that align with existing concerns and commitments. In doing so, we found a discourse of uncertainty. Many people were confused about government rules and guidance. This opened up space for reflection on what might count as binding for particular individuals in particular situations. We also found that prescriptions and guidance generated a series of dilemmas for many people. The right thing to do was therefore rendered subject to forms of judgement regarding the balancing of multiple demands and values.

Pandemic response, we conclude, was not simply a question of compliance or non-compliance. It was experienced ethically. Abstract regulations had to be interpreted, given content, and made meaningful in practical terms and in terms of what matters. These conclusions help to advance understandings of how people responded to public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also, more generally, how ordinary people engage with public issues.

Geographies of generosity: Remembering Clive Barnett

This blog, and the project behind it, is (was) a collaboration between Clive Barnett and myself. Clive died on 24 December 2021. I’ll work out what this means for the project in the coming weeks and months. For now, here are some words on Clive:

This is not a formal obituary. There will be other times, places, and authors for those. It will probably get trapped in the obituary genre though, which is disappointing because Clive was always trying to escape the constraints of particular genres, which he thought limited our ability to think about new things in new ways. (I realise I’m going to make some claims about what Clive thought in the coming paragraphs. In writing this piece, I don’t mean to claim him from others. There was enough of Clive to go round. And anyone who wants to know what Clive really thought can read all the wonderful writing he left us).

If this is not a formal obituary, then it also won’t be as insightful as some of the informal, genre-defying ‘obituaries’ Clive himself wrote. He wrote generously about many former colleagues, helping people to remember them and see their work in often new and inspiring ways. Some of these pieces were published over the years on his Pop Theory blog. I’m not sure how to put this, but I was ‘looking forward’ (the wrong words) to reading more of these posts about certain human geographers in future. Now, some of those people will presumably write about Clive instead.

What follows will also be written in a strange voice (to me). I don’t really know my audience anymore. For much of my academic life, one prominent member of my imagined audience was Clive. I wrote for him, hoping he would like what I wrote. Sometimes we wrote together, co-authoring a book, journal articles, blog posts etc. or he acted as a second reader for papers I was writing alone or with others. But even when he wasn’t an actual reader, I always imagined he was. He was the standard I held myself to, though he probably wouldn’t have liked that idea. Too constraining again. Standards were for interrogating.

I met Clive at Bristol in the early 2000s. As a PhD student, I joined his ‘big hard books’ reading group, in which he helped students – and some colleagues – read books like The Limits to Capital and A Theory of Justice from cover to cover, including footnotes, one chapter per week. He was very generous with his time and advice. I had my own supportive, inspiring PhD supervisor in Nigel Thrift, but Clive also read things for me, including my draft thesis, which he covered in thousands of markings – providing possibly the closest reading by anyone of anything I’ve ever written.

After my PhD, I became Clive’s research assistant on a project with Paul Cloke and Alice Malpass. This project, led by Clive, taught me a huge amount. Of course, I learned something of theory, which is what Clive is perhaps best known for, and which he was comfortable identifying with (as Professor of Geography and Social Theory at University of Exeter). But I also learned much about empirical research, which Clive took incredibly seriously. In our conversations over the years, he would talk about empirical studies – say, the political geography of Ron Johnston or Charles Pattie – at least as often as the philosophers and theorists with whom he is often associated (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas etc.). To see how seriously Clive took empirical research, I recommend Chapter 5 of Globalizing Responsibility. The first draft was, I recall, well over 20,000 words. It was mostly Clive and remains one of the deepest engagements I’ve read with questions of what focus groups are for and how to interpret focus group data. (Clive’s line was that focus groups allow researchers to stage aspects of democratic governance. Group members position themselves and others in relation to public issues. This happens interactively and dynamically over the course of the session. Using focus groups, researchers get to observe this process of positioning and repositioning.)

Something else Clive taught me during our study of ethical consumption was the importance of description. It is never ‘mere’ description. It is the foundation for analysis. Indeed, one of Clive’s irritations with certain strains of critical geography was that too often, he thought, critics jump too quickly from description to analysis to denunciation, without pausing for long enough to describe and understand, to describe thickly, what they think they are denouncing.

For example, when we began the ethical consumption project, critical commentators generally assumed that campaigns – promoting consumption of products that were fair trade, no sweat, organic etc. – aimed to subjectify people (as ethical consumers). They proceeded to dismiss these campaigns, either for failing to achieve their aims (because subjectification meets resistance) or for aiming to achieve politically suspect aims (the encouragement of consumer identities and practices). Clive wanted to look more carefully at such campaigns, with a clear lens and an open mind – relatively speaking, of course. When he did so, what he described were campaigns aiming to generate acts of ethical consumption (e.g. sales of fair trade products) that would then be used as evidence of support for a policy position (e.g. fair trade) in multiple arenas – from the church stall to the supermarket to the local council to the government department to the international trade conference.

Reading back what I’ve written so far, one emergent theme is generosity: Clive’s generosity to me personally (giving me his time, feedback, advice, friendship); and his generosity to the people he studied – campaigners, citizens, politicians, scientists, ordinary people, who he approached generally as good faith actors operating competently in difficult circumstances. Another example of Clive’s generosity is the way he interacted with academic colleagues – in team meetings, seminars, conference sessions, written exchanges. His usual way was to listen to people and pick out the one thing he liked best (even if he disliked lots of what they said). Then he would riff on that one thing, making more of it, and making the person feel good for having triggered such positive, productive engagement. (Of course, Clive could also be a harsh critic, as anyone who’s read his book reviews or blog posts about UK HE will attest, but I think he pretty much exclusively reserved such harshness for people ‘at the top’. If he was punchy on occasion, then he punched up and not down.)

After Bristol, Clive and I kept in touch. He moved to the Open University – which fitted his commitments to the competence of ordinary people and their place in democracy (on which more below) – then to Exeter. We did favours for each other, reading things each other had written, speaking at things organised by each other. He wrote references for me and provided advice – always the senior partner. Indeed, writing a difficult piece like this, Clive is the first person I would have called for advice…

For the last 18 months or so, we’ve been working together more formally again as co-investigators on a project about popular responses to the COVID-19 pandemic (this blog is the website for that project). The excitement for me was working once more with Clive and his original, always provocative ideas on risk, responsibility, ethics, governmentality, practices, ordinary people. The excitement for Clive was working again on something empirical: the diaries and letters collected during the pandemic by the Mass Observation Archive. He worried that critics were publishing too many quick analyses of the pandemic. They were fitting the pandemic into their existing frameworks. They were doing what Lauren Berlant called ‘genre flailing’: not opening up the object of study, but closing it down, controlling it, stabilising it, putting it to rest by throwing the language and interpretations of normal science at it. They were jumping from thin description to analysis (and often denunciation) without first patiently trying to describe and understand. Clive wanted to be moved by the pandemic. This was the potential he saw in the Mass Observation materials we’ve been reading. And while I was pushing us quickly to get something relevant out there, to intervene in public debates about how the pandemic was being governed and narrated, he was always pulling us back, determined to do justice to this new phenomenon and its effects, not to reduce it, not to dismiss elements of it, not to do epistemic violence to those affected by it.

Clive could be frustrating to work with. He was slow – intentionally so. He was controlling – often rewriting every other word of drafts written by co-authors. He was over-committed on lots of different projects (including his own projects like Pop Theory, which he could get lost in for days when other deadlines were due, but which were substantial, like everything he did). The frustrations, of course, were worth it. The papers and books that emerged were worth reading. I worry now about my current project. Some of what will come out of it will be my reductive hot takes, naked and exposed, lacking Clive’s care, patience, rigour, scholarship. He never would have let the hastily written piece you’re currently reading out the door. How I wish I could still check in with him before hitting ‘send’!

The final word, for now, should probably be ‘democracy’. Clive worked on this topic throughout his career. His views on democracy – his belief in people, giving them voice, enabling participation, listening, deliberating – run through so much of the above. He read widely (across the disciplines and continents). He listened carefully – to colleagues, but also ordinary people, whether in focus groups, the Mass Observation Archive, or popular culture, including the pop music he loved and insisted should be taken as seriously as the most radical punk act or obscure indie band. He refused to accept that ordinary people were dupes or victims – less competent or skilled than himself, other academics, journalists, politicians. This was part of his problem with critiques of neoliberalism. For him, at least some of these critiques assumed a top-down project of deregulation for the benefit of the capitalist class, and so wrote out the agency of ordinary people who benefited from the welfare state during the twentieth century, became more competent and critical over time, and came to demand a more active role in governance – a process Clive and others termed ‘democratisation’. More recently, Clive’s determination to recognise the good faith and competence of ordinary people was partly behind his irritation with critiques of the post-political. Some of them assumed, in Clive’s view, another top-down project of depoliticisation. How could such a project ever succeed, even if there was such a project? Would it not mean that ordinary people had stopped caring about things; had stopped suffering injustices and acting on the basis of those injustices – voicing their grievances, mobilising, making demands – in the same way you or I would?

In his reading, listening, and writing, Clive practised a democratic geography with great integrity. He is gone way too soon. Indeed, I can’t believe he is gone. After writing this piece, I had to go through and edit all the tenses. It is hard to write in the past tense about someone who was present until a couple of days ago. Clive leaves us (left us) this example of democratic academic practice and also a large body of writing – on democracy, South African democracy, human geography, social theory, and so much more – that deserves to be read long into the future.

So there is the conventional ending to the academic obituary. Let me also say that I loved him and know I’m one of many, many heart-broken people today.

Everyday life in the COVID-19 pandemic: Full set of videos now available

During 2021, supported by the British Academy, we collaborated with Jessica Scantlebury and Kirsty Pattrick at the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) to organise a seminar series on everyday life in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over six months, 16 papers were presented by 20 speakers from universities, archives, and think tanks in the UK, elsewhere in Europe, and the USA. The 95 registered audience members were spread across these locations and more.

Some of the speakers focused specifically on Mass Observation’s COVID-19 collections, contextualising them in the history of Mass Observation and everyday life studies, interpreting them for what they tell us about everyday life in the UK during the pandemic, and discussing the methodological challenges of using these collections. Other talks focused on other pandemic diary projects and collections – including the Lothian Diary Project, the Young Foundation’s COVID-19 and Community Life project, and the Everyday Life in Middletown Project – and other qualitative research projects completed during the pandemic. Themes covered by the talks included: the ethics of presenting everyday life; time and temporality; fear; uncertainty; the experiences of women; mobility; and social infrastructure.

Six videos covering the full series of talks can be found on Mass Observation’s YouTube channel at

Video 1

Nick Clarke (University of Southampton) – Some lessons from the literature.

Claire Langhamer (University of Sussex) – Mass-Observing the pandemic.

Kirsty Pattrick (University of Sussex) and Jessica Scantlebury (University of Sussex) – Mass Observation’s Covid-19 collections.

Video 2

Ben Highmore (University of Sussex) – The observation by everyone of everyone.

Nick Hubble (Brunel University London) – Self-reflexive writing, everyday life and social change in Mass Observation narratives.

Video 3

Mathew Thomson (University of Warwick) – Reflections on the histories of Covid, mental health and the NHS via Mass Observation.

Dawn Lyon (University of Kent) and Rebecca Coleman (Goldsmiths) – Making time and feeling time: Temporal orientations to the coronavirus pandemic.

Clive Barnett (University of Exeter) – Fearful practices: Temporalities of anxiety and anticipation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Video 4

Perpetua Kirby (University of Sussex) and Rebecca Webb (University of Sussex) – Covid-19 and educating for uncertainty.

Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton) – Picturing the pandemic in Mass Observation’s Covid collections.

Kirsty Pattrick (University of Sussex) – Women, wellbeing, and the natural environment during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Video 5

Claire Cowie (University of Edinburgh) – The Lothian Diary Project.

Victoria Boelman (The Young Foundation) – Covid-19 & Community Life: A creative digital diary approach to understanding community life during a global pandemic.

Patrick Collier (Ball State University) and James Connolly (Ball State University) – Time shifts: Future orientation in pandemic everyday life.

Video 6

Mary Greene (Wageningen University) – Consumption and shifting temporalities of daily life during disruption: Undoing and reassembling household practices during COVID-19.

Anna-Lisa Mueller (Bielefeld University) – Social infrastructures in times of Corona: Exploring the ambiguities of sociality, practices and materiality through collaborative autoethnography.

Using Mass Observation’s COVID-19 collections: Videos of the seminar series

The seminar series runs from May to November 2021. For more more information on the seminar series, please see The video of the first seminar is now available. The playlist for videos of all the seminars can be found on Mass Observation’s YouTube channel here:

Using Mass Observation’s Covid-19 Collections: Seminar Schedule

Here is the schedule for this online seminar series. The seminars will be on Wednesday afternoons, 1400-1600 GMT. If you’d like to receive joining instructions, please e-mail The organisers are Nick Clarke (University of Southampton) and Clive Barnett (University of Exeter), with Kirsty Pattrick and Jessica Scantlebury (Mass Observation Archive). We thank the British Academy for providing funding (Special Research Grant: Covid-19 – ‘Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to Covid-19’ – see

May 19th – Introduction

Nick Clarke (University of Southampton) and Clive Barnett (University of Exeter) – Some lessons from the literature.

Claire Langhamer (University of Sussex) – Mass-Observing the pandemic.

Kirsty Pattrick (University of Sussex) and Jessica Scantlebury (University of Sussex) – Mass Observation’s Covid-19 collections.

June 16th – Situating the Covid-19 collections in MO

Ben Highmore (University of Sussex) – The observation by everyone of everyone.

Nick Hubble (Brunel University London) – Self-reflexive writing, everyday life and social change in Mass Observation narratives.

July 14th – Using MO’s Covid-19 collections 1

Mathew Thomson (University of Warwick) – Reflections on the histories of Covid, mental health and the NHS via Mass Observation.

Dawn Lyon (University of Kent) and Rebecca Coleman (Goldsmiths) – Making time and feeling time: Temporal orientations to the coronavirus pandemic.

Clive Barnett (University of Exeter) and Nick Clarke (University of Southampton) – Further lessons from the archive.

September 15th – Using MO’s Covid-19 collections 2

Perpetua Kirby (University of Sussex) and Rebecca Webb (University of Sussex) – Covid-19 and educating for uncertainty.

Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton) – Picturing the pandemic in Mass Observation’s Covid collections.

Kirsty Pattrick (University of Sussex) – Women, wellbeing, and the natural environment during the Covid-19 pandemic.

October 13th – Beyond MO: Other journals of the plague year

Claire Cowie (University of Edinburgh, with: Lauren Hall-Lew, Beatrice Alex, Nini Fang, Catherine Lai, Sarah Liu, Nina Markl, and Stephen McNulty, University of Edinburgh) – The Lothian Diary Project.

Victoria Boelman (The Young Foundation) – Covid-19 & Community Life: A creative digital diary approach to understanding community life during a global pandemic.

Patrick Collier (Ball State University) and James Connolly (Ball State University) – Time shifts: Future orientation in pandemic everyday life.

November 10th – Beyond the UK: Other qualitative studies of lockdown

Katja Sara Pepe de Neergaard (IT University of Copenhagen) – Privacy as digital wellbeing: The relationship between privacy practices and digital wellbeing during lockdown.

Mary Greene (Wageningen University, with: Arve Hansen, University of Oslo; Claire Hoolohan, Manchester University; Elisabeth Süßbauer, TU Berlin; and Lorenzo Domaneschi, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca) – Consumption and shifting temporalities of daily life during disruption: Undoing and reassembling household practices during COVID-19.

Leonie Tuitjer (Leibniz University Hanover) and Anna-Lisa Mueller (Osnabruck University) – Social infrastructures in times of Corona: Exploring the ambiguities of sociality, practices and materiality through collaborative autoethnography.

Online seminar series: Using Mass Observation’s Covid-19 Collections

What? Since March 2020, Mass Observation (MO) has collected diaries and other writing from thousands of people across Britain on everyday life during the Covid-19 pandemic. This online seminar series will bring together archivists and researchers to discuss how best to use MO’s Covid-19 collections and the methodological challenges they present. The archivists will provide an introduction to the archive, the collections, and plans for digitisation and other projects/events. There will be opportunities for researchers to present papers (probably two speakers per seminar, plus time for discussion). One outcome of the series might be a website of seminar videos. Another outcome might be a journal special issue on using MO’s Covid-19 collections and related topics, such as:

  • MO’s response to Covid-19: directives, publicity, partnerships, collections, digitisation.
  • Journals, plagues, diaries, and Covid-19.
  • The uses of MO by panellists, non-panellists, journalists, and researchers.
  • Reading the 12 May day diaries.
  • Reading the directive responses of MO panellists.
  • Approaching the collections from the social sciences and the humanities.
  • Sampling and the aesthetics of representation.
  • Popular responses to Covid-19 and associated discourses of risk and responsibility.
  • Practising everyday life during the pandemic.
  • Using the collections to inform public health responses to the pandemic and its impacts.
  • More broadly, using qualitative research to inform policy responses to emergencies and their impacts.

When? Every month, starting in late spring/early summer 2021.

Where? Online, probably using Zoom.

Who? The organisers are Nick Clarke (University of Southampton) and Clive Barnett (University of Exeter), in collaboration with Kirsty Pattrick and Jessica Scantlebury (Mass Observation) and the British Academy (Special Research Grant: Covid-19 – ‘Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to Covid-19’ – see We invite participation from established and early career researchers, including PhD students.

How? To express an interest in participating, as a speaker or audience member, please e-mail Nick Clarke ( by 05/03/21.* To express an interest in presenting a paper at some point in the series, please include your name, institution, and ideas for a working title and brief abstract. We aim to send a schedule and joining instructions to participants in early spring.

*By e-mailing, you agree to be contacted about the seminar series. Your e-mail address may be visible to other participants when this happens, but will otherwise be held by the organisers in accordance with the University of Southampton’s data protection policy (available at

Call for papers (RGS-IBG 2021): Governing the Covid-19 pandemic

Call for papers, RGS-IBG Annual Conference, online paper session(s).

Governing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Convenors: Nick Clarke (University of Southampton) and Clive Barnett (University of Exeter).

Much public debate during the Covid-19 pandemic has focused on the problem of compliance with non-pharmaceutical interventions. Key questions in this debate have included: what are the rules, are they tight enough, are people complying with them, and, if not, why not? These questions reduce the problem of governing pandemic response to a narrow moral focus on rule specification and rule following. However, governing the conduct of people during the pandemic has operated through a range of strategies beyond formal rules. The rationalities and technologies have been numerous and varied, from lockdown regulations and associated penalties, to public health messaging and guidance, to financial support and incentives, to appeals that people use ‘common sense’ in assessing risks and making ethical judgements. Furthermore, in responding to guidance, norms, recommendations, and risks associated with the virus, people have innovated their own practices to manage their own behaviour and responsibilities. They have participated critically in debates on public health issues around the categorisation and treatment of vulnerable groups. They have developed new routines and practices of hygiene, parenting, caring for family and friends, neighbouring, work, shopping, travel, media consumption/production, and so on.

We invite abstracts for an online paper session focused on the general topic of ‘governing the Covid-19 pandemic’, including any of the specific topics listed below. Depending on the response, it may be possible to convene two sessions: one focused on attempts by governments to shape the conduct of citizens and residents; and a second focused on attempts by people to manage their own risks and responsibilities. Potential topics for papers include:

  • Following the science.
  • Regulations, guidance, and messaging.
  • Compliance/non-compliance.
  • Government support and the capacity of individuals and groups.
  • Liberty, common sense, and ethical dilemmas.
  • Ordinary discourses of disadvantage, privilege, and responsibility.
  • The uses of scientific literacy (by government, scientists, news media, ordinary people).
  • Understandings and practices of good citizenship during the pandemic.

Please send expressions of interest, including author names and affiliations, and paper titles and abstracts (250 words max.) to and by 26 February.

Five lessons for using Mass Observation’s Covid-19 collections (plus five ways of solving the problem of representativeness)

One part of our project focuses on Covid-19 and the questions of responsibility outlined in our previous blog, but another part focuses on Mass Observation’s Covid-19 collections and questions of method. In the following blog, we outline some initial thoughts on using MO’s Covid-19 collections. At some point in 2021, we hope to organise a workshop where these and other thoughts can be discussed.

Five lessons for using Mass Observation’s Covid-19 collections (plus five ways of solving the problem of representativeness)

During 2020, Mass Observation (MO) collected lockdown diaries, 12 May day diaries, and responses to three letters/directives on life during the pandemic. These Covid-19 collections will be used by social scientists and historians to understand what ordinary people thought, felt, and did in Britain during 2020. But how should these collections be used? How should the material be read and interpreted? Drawing on histories of MO and existing research using MO sources, here are five lessons on how best to use MO’s Covid-19 collections.

1) Writing for MO should be treated as subjective writing. Writing for MOdoes a number of things. It transmits knowledge, constructs knowledge, and contests knowledge, but it tends to be subjective writing, as opposed to social reportage (Bloome et al 1993, Sheridan et al 2000). It tends to be writing in the service of identity construction (Nettleton and Uprichard 2011). It tends to be writing as a social and cultural practice oriented towards doing something: building a relationship, influencing an opinion, and especially positioning the author in relation to MO and other authorities and institutions (Sheridan et al 2000).

2) Writing for MO should be treated as dialogic. It is part of a dialogue with MO (Bloome et al 1993, Salter 2010). It is not just subjective, but intersubjective (Pollen 2014). The panellists are not just Mass Observers or respondents, but correspondents who exchange letters with MO as part of an ongoing conversation (Sheridan et al 2000). They have a sense of purpose and document ordinary life for an imagined audience of current and future researchers (Kramer 2014). Having said that, the specific wording of particular directives should not be overplayed. MO wording frames more than it dictates (Gazeley and Langhamer 2012).

3) Writing for MO provides evidence of top-down and bottom-up processes. In the writing of MO diarists, we see their cultural worlds – their worlds of discourse – and how they construct from these worlds their own distinctive selfhoods (Hinton 2008, 2010). So we see how individuals drive historical processes as historical agents operating in the face of received cultural norms (Hinton 2010). In writing for MO, we see evidence of top-down standards and codes, but also how people receive such standards and codes – their dis/comfort with them – and what people do with them (Langhamer 2016). In MO sources, we see the sociological constructs panellists use as resources, but also their lay articulations of those constructs – their practices of selection, interpretation, appropriation, incorporation, contextualisation (Wilson-Kovacs 2014).

4) MO not only reports public opinion, but also helps to shape it. The original MO of the 1930s and 1940s helped to develop new conceptions of population and culture, new notions of ‘mass’ (a particular conception of population) and ‘morale’ (a measure of the population’s mood), new means of knowing and governing the population, which it communicated to MO writers in the form of example diaries and directive responses, providing them with models for self-observation and so normalising mass surveillance as a collective habit (Harrison 2014). In its twentieth-century activities, which sometimes mobilised large numbers of people, MO benefited from and helped to produce a cadre of the technically, intellectually, scientifically engaged – a new social identity – and to embed social science in everyday life, providing people with a new language and imaginary of social group, social relationship, and social change (Savage 2008, 2010). MO provides participants with opportunities to tell their own stories, assert their own agency, reflexively fashion themselves (Sheridan 1993, Sheridan et al 2000). During the twentieth century, it contributed to the production of a new and more individualistic culture, which should not be interpreted as moral decline, but rather as the outcome of struggles for personal autonomy, egalitarianism, and democratisation (Hinton 2010).

5) The problem of representativeness can be addressed in at least five ways. The social constitution of MO’s panel of volunteer writers haunts social scientific engagements with MO data. The current version of the panel is more representative of the national population than previous versions, which were dominated by the radicalised lower middle class (Jeffrey 1978), or the technically-minded middle class (Savage 2010), or people from the middle classes, the Left, and London and South East England (Hinton 2013), or the elderly (Casey et al 2014). That being said, the current version remains unrepresentative in the statistical sense favoured by most social scientists, and it is dominated – as it always has been – by volunteers for a certain kind of project: self-selected enthusiasts who tend to be particularly dutiful, engaged, reflexive, and critical (Hinton 2010). How might users of MO’s Covid-19 collections respond to this problem of representativeness?

First, the skewed character of the panel can be challenged. Claims regarding the skewed character of the panel are often made on the basis of meta-data. For example, the panel is claimed to be skewed towards the middle classes because of the occupations registered by panellists at the time of joining. Such claims can be challenged. For example, Casey (2020) has argued that many panellists might be seen as middle class due to their current occupations, but might be seen as working class because that is how many socially mobile panellists continue to self-identify (evident in their writing, if not in the meta-data).

Second, the skewed character of the panel can be accepted and used to provide a focus for research. This may be a focus on women, who have often been over-represented on the panel, whose voices are often marginalised in public discourse, and who can be given voice by research using MO sources (Baker and Geringer 2018). Or it may be a focus on other groups often over-represented on the panel: the educated middle class (Savage 2007, 2008); the upwardly mobile (Casey 2020); particularly engaged, dutiful citizens (Manning 2017); volunteers, who tend to be elderly and female (Lindsey and Bulloch 2014); genealogists, who tend to be elderly, female, and middle class (Kramer 2011); gardeners, who tend to be elderly, female, middle class, and white (Bhatti et al 2009); and so on.

Third, the skewed character of the panel can be corrected, at least to some extent. Researchers can sample within the panel, filling quotas for age, gender, occupation, and place of residence (Clarke et al 2018, May 2018, Salter 2010). Clarke et al (2018) found that roughly 60 responses per directive allowed for wide social coverage and descriptive saturation.

Fourth, MO texts can be read carefully for what they tell us, without assuming they tell us about the views and experiences of representatives of particular social groups (the assumption behind the problem of representativeness). Here, a lead can be taken from the panellists themselves (Kramer 2014). Writing for an imagined audience of researchers, participants write reflexively and contextualise their responses, identifying the vantage points from which they write and explicitly positioning themselves as particular types of cases. Sometimes, they position themselves as typical cases (or typical of a particular social group). Sometimes, they position themselves as unusual (and, by doing so, describe what is more typical). This is the difference between ‘representative cases’ and ‘telling cases’ (Bloome et al 1993). The question to ask is not only ‘who speaks?’, but also ‘what do they tell us?’. Sometimes, MO sources make visible logical connections between phenomena of relevance far beyond the individual case or the particular social group that case might be assumed to represent (Clarke et al 2017). Something else MO sources tell us, when taken as a whole and not disaggregated as the views and experiences of representatives, is the range of cultural resources – categories, storylines, subject positions, folk theories – circulating in society at a particular historical moment (Clarke et al 2018; see also Gazeley and Langhamer 2012, Nettleton and Uprichard 2011, Salter 2010, Savage 2007). It is from these cultural resources that people construct understandings. To establish the full range, a horizontal approach to the archive – quoting from as many different writers as possible – is appropriate (Clarke et al 2018). However, to establish how these cultural resources are used, contested, and transformed (see Lesson 3), a more vertical approach is recommended, where particular panellists are followed across multiple directives (e.g. Busby 2000).

Fifth, in the spirit of the original MO, the problem of representativeness can be replaced with a similar but different problem: the problem of representation. The founders of MO in the late 1930s were interested in how to represent everyday life and approached this question not as a statistical problem focused on inputs – a sampling problem – but as a literary problem of composition and depiction (Highmore 2002, Hubble 2010, Jardine 2018). Like the avant-garde continental sociologists laying the groundwork for everyday life studies at the time (Simmel, Benjamin etc.), or the scientific humanists of the time (Tarde, Freud etc.), Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings especially were influenced by surrealism and the aesthetic techniques of surrealist poetry, painting, film, and theatre. They sought images, metaphors, close-ups, luminous moments, multiple points of view, which they thought provided clues to the mass unconscious, and which they arranged in montages to draw unfamiliar associations, to emphasise ambiguity and possibility, to represent society as a diverse, heterogeneous ‘totality of fragments’ (Highmore 2002), and to promote a new consciousness and encourage social transformation (at a time of concerns about mass media, elite representations of a unified ‘people’, and the rise of Nazism in Germany).

So where does all this lead in terms of research questions that might be asked of MO’s Covid-19 collections? We could ask: what cultural resources, worlds of discourse, constructs, categories, storylines, subject positions, norms, standards, codes, and theories were people exposed to during the pandemic? How did people receive, use, and transform these resources – by means of selection, interpretation, articulation, contestation, appropriation, incorporation, contextualisation? What was produced by these processes – what new concepts, notions, languages, models, habits, imaginaries, identities, selves, cultures, ways of knowing, ways of governing? How best to represent all this aesthetically, in a way that depicts the totality of British society (the ‘mass’ of MO), but also captures fully the diversity, heterogeneity, ambiguity, and possibility of life under/after the pandemic?


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