New HHS with a Special Section: Archiving the COVID-19 pandemic in Mass Observation and Middletown

The April 2023 issue of History of the Human Sciences is now online. This issue includes a special section on “Archiving the COVID-19 pandemic in Mass Observation and Middletown” guest edited by Nick Clarke and Clive Barnett. Full titles, authors, and abstracts below.

Special Section: Archiving the COVID-19 pandemic in Mass Observation and Middletown

“Archiving the COVID-19 pandemic in Mass Observation and Middletown,” by Nick Clarke and Clive Barnett. Open-access. Abstract:

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.

“Rupture, repetition, and new rhythms for pandemic times: Mass Observation, everyday life, and COVID-19,” by Dawn Lyon. Open-access. Abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic has foregrounded the significance of time to everyday life, as the routines, pace, and speed of social relations were widely reconfigured. This article uses rhythm as an object and tool of inquiry to make sense of spatio-temporal change. We analyse the Mass Observation (MO) directive we co-commissioned on ‘COVID-19 and Time’, where volunteer writers reflect on whether and how time was made, experienced, and imagined differently during the early stages of the pandemic in the UK. We draw on Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier’s ‘rhythmanalysis’, taking up their theorisation of rhythm as linear and cyclical and their concepts of arrhythmia (discordant rhythms) and eurhythmia (harmonious rhythms). Our analysis highlights how MO writers articulate (a) the ruptures to their everyday rhythms across time and space, (b) their experience of ‘blurred’ or ‘merged’ time as everyday rhythms are dissolved and the pace of time is intensified or slowed, and (c) the remaking of rhythms through new practices or devices and attunements to nature. We show how rhythm enables a consideration of the spatio-temporal textures of everyday life, including their unevenness, variation, and difference. The article thus contributes to and expands recent scholarship on the social life of time, rhythm and rhythmanalysis, everyday life, and MO.

“Seeing like an epidemiologist? Mobilising people against COVID-19,” by Nick Clarke and Clive Barnett. Abstract:

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.

“‘There is nothing less spectacular than a pestilence’: Picturing the pandemic in Mass Observation’s COVID-19 collections,” by Annebella Pollen. Open-access. Abstract:

What is to be gained by studying visual observation in Mass Observation’s COVID-19 collections? What can we see of the pandemic through diarists’ images and words? Visual methods were part of the plural research strategies of social research organisation Mass Observation (MO) in its first phase, when it was established in 1937, but remained marginal in relation to textual research methods. This continues with the post-1981 revival of the Mass Observation Project (MOP), with its emphasis on life writing. With wider shifts in technology and accessibility, however, even when they are not solicited, photographs now accompany MOP correspondents’ submissions. In MO’s substantial COVID-19 collections, images appear in or as diary entries across a range of forms, including hand-drawn illustrations, correspondent-generated photographs, creative photomontages, and screengrabs of memes. In addition, diarists offer textual reflections on COVID-19’s image cultures, such as the role of photographs in pandemic news media, as well as considering how the pandemic is intersecting with the visual in more abstract ways, from themes of surveillance and ‘Staying Alert’ in public health messaging to internal pictorial imaginaries produced as a result of isolation and contemplation. Positioning these materials in relation to wider patterns in pandemic visual culture, including public photographic collecting projects that make explicit reference to MO as their inspiration, this article considers the contribution of the visual submissions and image-rich writing in MO’s COVID-19 collections to the depiction of a virus commonly characterised as invisible.

“Time shifts: Place, belonging, and future orientation in pandemic everyday life,” by Patrick Collier and James J. Connolly. Abstract:

The disruptions to everyday life wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic include distortions in the experience of time, as reported widely by ordinary citizens and observed by journalists and social scientists. But how does this temporal disruption play out in different time scales—in the individual day as opposed to the medium- and long-term futures? And how might place influence how individuals experience and understand the pandemic’s temporal transformations? This essay examines a range of temporal disruptions reported in day diaries and surveys submitted to the Everyday Life in Middletown project, an online archive that has been documenting ordinary life in Muncie, Indiana, USA since 2016. Viewing these materials as instances of life writing, the essay probes the interactions between temporal disruptions and the local setting as they inflect the autobiographical selves our writers construct in their pandemic writings. It shows how living in Muncie—a postindustrial city with its particular combination of historical, demographic, economic, social, and political dynamics—structures the autobiographical stories available to our writers, and how the disruption of time produces new variations and problems for life writing. In the midst of a global crisis, we glimpse the pandemic’s reshaping of a local structure of feeling in which a pervasive, local narrative of civic decline frames individual self-fashioning.

“A genealogy of the scalable subject: Measuring health in the Cornell Study of Occupational Retirement (1950–60),” by Tiago Moreira. Open-access. Abstract:

Increased use of scales in data-driven consumer digital platforms and the management of organisations has led to greater interest in understanding social and psychological measurement expertise and techniques as historically constituted ‘technologies of power’ in the making of what Stark has labelled the ‘scalable subject’. Taking a genealogical approach, and drawing on published and archival data, this article focuses on self-rated health, a scale widely used in population censuses, national health surveys, patient-reported outcome measurement tools, and a variety of digital apps. The article suggests that the first methodological articulation of self-rated health by the investigators of the Cornell Study of Occupational Retirement (1951–58) provides a window into the key epistemic, institutional, and cultural uncertainties about psychological and social measurement, processes of adjustment to ‘old age’, and the capacity of individuals to value their own health. I propose that these uncertainties have become incorporated into extant and operational measurements of health.

“Racial anthropology in Turkey and transnational entanglements in the making of scientific knowledge: Seniha Tunakan’s academic trajectory, 1930s–1970s,” Nazan Maksudyan. Open-access. Abstract:

This article situates the trajectory of the academic life of Seniha Tunakan (1908–2000) within the development of anthropology as a scientific discipline in Turkey and its transnational connections to Europe during the interwar period and up until the second half of the 20th century. Relying on the archives of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, the archive of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes in Germany, and the Prime Ministry’s Republican Archives in Turkey, it focuses on the doctoral studies of Seniha Tunakan in Germany and her life as a female PhD researcher in the capital of the Third Reich, as well as her entire research career after her return to Turkey. Through Tunakan’s career, the article also provides an analysis of the perpetuation of German race science in the Turkish context, shedding light upon the success of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Anthropologie, menschliche Erblehre und Eugenik (Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics) and its transnational impact.

“I never promised you a rose garden.… When landscape architecture becomes a laboratory for the Anthropocene,” by Henriette Steiner. Abstract:

In the summer of 2017, wildflower seeds were spread on a large, empty open space close to a motorway flyover just outside Copenhagen, Denmark. This was an effort to use non-mechanical methods to prepare the soil for an ‘urban forest’ to be established on the site, since the flowers’ roots would penetrate the ground and enable the planned new trees to settle. As a result, the site was transformed into a gorgeous meadow, and all summer long Copenhageners were invited to come and pick the flowers. In this article, I critically examine different aspects of this project – including the role of design, the perception of nature–culture relationships, climate change, and flower-picking as an event – in relation to my personal experience of visiting this meadow both on-site and on social media. The different temporalities that clash at the site give rise to conflicting interpretations, and I suggest that the meadow can be seen as a living plant archive of the Anthropocene, both physically and digitally. In doing so, I introduce and critique key conceptual pairs, including archive/death and bloom/decay, suggested by Lee Edelman’s queer cross-reading of Jacques Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’ and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I thereby contrast flower motifs pertaining to the cycles of blooming, decay, and nature’s (failed) eternal return in the meadow with the expansive futurity of the digitally mediated archive.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.