Social Data in the Interwar Period

Social Data in the Interwar Period

Boris Jardine

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'A picture of the factors which condition human happiness': Otto Neurath's 1937 map entitled 'City Planning'.

This project looks at the proliferation of social data-gathering organisations in the interwar period. It begins with an attempt to contextualise Mass-Observation, a British social survey and participant observation movement founded in 1937. In spite of its apparently singular mix of utopianism, surrealism and social theory, I wish to explore the ways in which Mass-Observation was concomitant with the wide range of data practices developed in the United Kingdom at the time. At the national level there were surveys such as the Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population, which attempted to map and account for the distribution of British industry; at the local level there were the Regional Surveys, as well as voluntary groups such as the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, London, which provided a space for the investigation of 'health' and a reinvigorated modern suburbanism. What links these disparate data-collection exercises is a concern with the management and planning of the (typically urban) environment: the 'facts' that were generated were used in the construction of theories of human ecology. So my first question is: what was the place of purely qualitative data amidst what Adam Tooze has called 'a torrent of numbers'?
This project contributes to my book manuscript, Scientific Moderns, on the role of science in modernism and the construction of the modern British subject. It also relates to two new strands in my work: one dealing with a comparative survey of social data practices in a variety of countries in the late 1930s; the other on the genealogy of current concerns with metrics of 'happiness' and the quantification of opinions and emotional states.