Peabody on Hinton, 'Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late Twentieth Century'

Author: 
James Hinton
Reviewer: 
Tina M. Peabody

James Hinton. Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 190 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-878713-6.

Reviewed by Tina M. Peabody (University at Albany, SUNY) Published on H-War (June, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53209

Seven Lives from Mass Observation by James Hinton is a social and cultural history of Britain in the second half of the twentieth century from the perspective of those who lived through it. To understand the experience, Hinton traces the lives of seven respondents to the Mass Observation Project who were born before World War II and lived to see the rise of Margaret Thatcher. He argues that biographies of ordinary lives challenge larger historical narratives and emphasize the importance of individual choices in processes of social change. While politicians like Thatcher often get credit for making history, Hinton maintains that social change “moves at a slower and deeper pace than anything determined by the frenzies of political life or the rise and fall of career politicians” (p. vii). Since all of his respondents were adults in the 1960s, Hinton also challenges the focus on youth culture in examinations of the social upheaval of the period.

Hinton begins by providing background on the Mass Observation Project the stories are drawn from. Mass Observation was established in the 1930s by an anthropologist and a poet to allow the average person to tell their own stories. This project ended in 1949 but left behind an archive of popular writing. The work was revived as the Mass Observation Project in the 1980s when Hinton’s participants began writing. Initially focused on gathering data about everyday life, by the 1990s the Mass Observation Project was influenced by the growing interest in history from below. The anonymous questionnaires (directives) sent to participants were more open-ended and pursued more intimate details about their lives.

Hinton frames the seven biographical sketches in a broad historical context, focusing primarily on shifts in gender norms and sexual mores, the proliferation of social and voluntary movements, and the rise of neoliberal politics under Thatcher. The seven biographies are titled by occupation, reflecting Hinton’s effort to capture a variety of social and class responses to the postwar era: housewife, teacher, social worker, Royal Air Force wife, mechanic, lorry driver, and banker. In a group that had little in common other than their participation in this project, Hinton sees responses to gender divisions as the clearest pattern. He notes that the three male respondents were suspicious of feminism and continued to support traditional gender roles. The female respondents, meanwhile, all reflected on their unfulfilled potential and the paths closed to them as women.

Seven Lives proves individual biographies can reshape the historical narrative of the late twentieth century, particularly the history of working-class life. The biographical sketches of Bob the lorry driver and Len the mechanic provide an unusually intimate, first-hand account of the decline of the working class that is missing from historical scholarship. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2012) by Jefferson Cowie is one of the only comprehensive studies of the decline of the working class in the United States but primarily gets at working-class culture indirectly through television, film, and music. Similarly, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy (2008) by Shane Hamilton includes examinations of the masculine, individualistic culture of the US trucking industry and its relationship to the rise of conservatism but similarly lacks detailed first-hand accounts.

While the stories in Seven Lives make many potential contributions to the history of late twentieth-century Britain, it is never entirely clear what overall intervention Hinton is making. The book’s organization does little to clarify the interpretive direction. Having one chapter devoted to historical context followed by separate biographical chapters makes it harder to integrate the stories within the larger history. Hinton makes connections to major historical themes in each chapter, but this often feels buried in a sea of biographical detail. Had Hinton focused on a particular thematic connection across the stories (for instance, gender), Seven Lives might have felt more cohesive and the larger historiographical claims would have been clearer.

Readers might also wonder whether these stories can speak for wider historical trends and populations. Hinton acknowledges at the outset that his sample is not completely representative, since the Mass Observation Archive is heavily weighted toward southern and middle-class respondents. While his concern for including a balance of gender and class backgrounds is clear, he is surprisingly evasive about racial diversity. His only explanation for the lack of nonwhite respondents is that “people of colour played a significant role in the lives of several of them” (p. vi). The exclusion of these voices is a significant oversight, considering the importance of questions of race and conflicts over immigration to the late twentieth century.

That being said, Hinton pushes historians to rethink historical narratives by including the biographies of ordinary lives. In his conclusion, Hinton says he is hopeful that this book will be a starting point for a larger revision of the historiography of the period using these stories, and, if nothing else, Seven Lives showcases the Mass Observation Archives as an ideal historical resource for doing so. I personally look forward to future scholarship based around the stories Hinton presents here and the scores of others waiting to be told.

Citation: Tina M. Peabody. Review of Hinton, James, Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late Twentieth Century. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53209

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