Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton

HIST6118 Observing society and self in Britain c.1880-1980

Module Overview

The motif of observation is at the heart of the history of twentieth century Britain. From Victorian and Edwardian ‘lady visitors’ visiting working-class families to hidden CCTV installations, observational projects represented ways of understanding and responding to perceived social problems and struggles, and shifting personal and social identities. This module invites you to explore some of the uses to which observational projects were put in the twentieth century, and the cultural, intellectual and political milieux to which they were connected. Observation took many forms and you will encounter projects including social anthropology; sociology; political studies; photojournalism; documentary film; investigative journalism; and personal methods of self-reflection. Underpinning our enquiry will be an attempt to understand how historians should ‘read’ observational projects, the observers and the observed. What do these projects tell us about transformations in the nature of governance in twentieth-century Britain, about what was thought to constitute ‘knowledge’ and the functioning of ‘difference’ in the modern world?

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

investigate the diverse role of social observation and self-observational projects within twentieth century Britain  understand the complex relationship between ‘observers’ and ‘observed’ and the wider cultural, intellectual, political and social contexts within which observational projects were developed  reflect upon issues raised in the secondary literature, and draw your own insights, about how historians should ‘read’ the documents of observational projects  critically engage with scholarship addressing this history, including cutting edge cultural approaches such as the history of emotions, the ‘new political history’ and the historiography of the relationship between social science and everyday life

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • key social problems, social struggles, and the makings of social identities in Britain over the course of the twentieth century
  • the role played by observational projects in shaping contemporaries’ understanding of and responding to said problems and identities
  • a range of types of primary sources (e.g. quantitative surveys; community studies; social observation films; documentary television; photography; investigative journalism; autobiography; oral history) that illuminate the diverse practices and idea of observation in the twentieth century
  • recent developments in historiographical fields including the history of emotions, the ‘new political history’ and scholarship on the relationship between social science and everyday life
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • analyse and debate the significance of observational practices in framing Britons’ understanding of society and self in the twentieth century, demonstrating a depth of knowledge and insight appropriate to postgraduate level
  • discuss intelligently the cultural, historical and political methodologies underpinning projects of observation in the twentieth century, and consider comparisons over time
  • critically analyse a variety of primary sources (aural, textual and visual)
  • evaluate the theoretical and methodological approaches used by scholars in a number of historiographical fields addressing the subject
  • articulate your reflections on primary and secondary sources in an engaged and critical manner in class discussion
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • demonstrate confidence in the scholarly application of knowledge, and the ability to advance that knowledge through research informed by the work of others
  • work independently and effectively using library, archival and internet resources and demonstrate efficient time management in your studies
  • prepare and give an effective oral presentation that engages and informs its audience
  • contribute to original and intellectually challenging discussion in a supportive group environment, including active listening and responding to the views of others
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • show familiarity with and be able to analyse a range of media and types of sources, including film, photography and television, as well as textual sources
  • produce a coherent essay that applies knowledge and understanding of the work of others, and demonstrates your ability to advance your own insights
  • critically discuss relevant historiographies, and methodological approaches used in both primary and secondary sources


Topics may include, but are not limited to:  Introduction: contexts for study  Investigative journalism  Census data  Poverty studies  Mass Observation  Social and community studies  Opinion polls  Documentary and social observation films  Consciousness-raising  Surveillance technologies

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

10 weekly double seminars, led by student presentations and facilitated by the tutor/s. Attention will be paid in each seminar to identifying and discussing key scholarship and debates, as well as engaging in a focused manner with primary sources, with the aim of producing familiarity in the methodological issues raised by the sources and fostering the ability, through example and experience, of incorporating these texts into critical frameworks with original insights. Throughout the module you will be encouraged to pursue your own particular research interests and case studies and space will be allocated during the module to enable you to present your essay work in progress in a supportive and reciprocally challenging environment. Learning activities include:  Preparatory reading and study before each seminar  Preparation and giving of at least one presentation during the seminar  Participation in small group and plenary seminar discussion  Preparing discussion questions and leading the seminar group in discussion for part of a seminar period  Independent research, including identification of wider source materials, in preparation for the research essay summative assessment

Preparation for scheduled sessions100
Completion of assessment task26
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

H Kuklick (1991). The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology 1885-1945. 

Mike Savage (2011). Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1840: the politics of method. 

Scott Anthony and James Mansell (2011). The Projection of Britain: a History of the GPO Film Unit. 

Peter Mandler (2011). Being His Own Rabbit: Geoffrey Gorer and English Culture. 

Anthony Giddens (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. 

Chris Waters (1997). Dark Strangers in Our Midst: Discourses of Race and Nation in Britain, 1947-1963. Journal of British Studies. ,36 , pp. 207-38.

Seth Koven and Sonya Michel (1993). Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States. 

Ross McKibbin (1991). The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain, 1880-1950. 

Charles Taylor (1989). Sources of the Self: the making of modern identity. 

Stuart Hall (1972). The Social Eye of Picture Post’, Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 2. 

Jon Lawrence Social-Science Encounters and the Negotiation of Difference in early 1960s England. History Workshop Journal. ,77 .





MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

Share this module Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Weibo

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we will assume that you are happy to receive cookies on the University of Southampton website.