What do diaries from Mass Observation say about food practices in 1950?

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A new peer reviewed paper by some of the study’s researchers has been published in the journal Sociological Research Online.

The article by Abigail Knight, Julia Brannen and Rebecca O’Connell, ‘Using Narrative Sources from the Mass Observation Archive to Study Everyday Food and Families in Hard Times: Food Practices in England During 1950‘, discusses insights from a study of ‘Families and Food in Hard Times: Methodological Innovations’ which was part of a wider project called NOVELLA (Narratives of Varied Everyday Lives and Linked Approaches). NOVELLA was a node of the National Centre for Research Methods, funded by the Economic Social Research Council and based at Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education.

The study aimed to advance knowledge about how to research the ‘disconnect’ between behaviour and constructed meanings in habitual family food practices, to examine both the cultural meanings of food in particular contexts at particular historical moments and to explore the methodological issues in the analysis of narrative data from different sources. The project did this by exploring the usefulness of narrative data in food research and through the re-use of archival data of different types: diaries from the Mass Observation Archive, oral histories from two community oral history archives and visual and ephemeral sources, such as recipe books and photography. This paper focuses on the first form of data we analysed, diaries from the Mass Observation Archive.

By using examples from food and domestic life in England during 1950, the paper examines the use of narrative archival sources as a methodological alternative to researching everyday food practices by traditional research methods, such as interviewing. Through the analysis of three diaries written for the Mass Observation Archive, and the everyday food practices expressed in these diaries, the authors consider the benefits and challenges of using narrative archival diary data to gain insights into food and eating during times of austerity.

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