The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain
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The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain

Kimberly Mair

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eBook - ePub

The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain

Kimberly Mair

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During the crisis of the Second World War in Britain, official Air Raid Precautions made the management of daily life a moral obligation of civil defence by introducing new prescriptions for the care of homes, animals, and persons displaced through evacuation. This book examines how the Mass-Observation movement recorded and shaped the logics of care that became central to those daily routines in homes and neighbourhoods. Kimberly Mair looks at how government publicity campaigns communicated new instructions for care formally, while the circulation of wartime rumours negotiated these instructions informally. These rumours, she argues, explicitly repudiated the improper socialization of evacuees and also produced a salient, but contested, image of the host as a good wartime citizen who was impervious to the cultural invasion of the ostensibly 'animalistic', dirty, and destructive house guest. Mair also considers the explicit contestations over the value of the lives of pets, conceived as animals who do not work with animal caregivers whose use of limited provisions or personal sacrifice could then be judged in the context of wartime hardship. Together, formal and informal instructions for caregiving reshaped everyday habits in the war years to an idealized template of the good citizen committed to the war and nation, with Mass-Observation enacting a watchful form of care by surveilling civilian feeling and habit in the process.

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World War II


Keeping Watch Over the Population

The gathering of state intelligence is not usually considered a form of care. In this chapter, however, I will consider the brief collaboration between Mass Observation and the British Ministry of Information (MoI) to elaborate ways in which Mass Observation attempted to influence the Ministry and performed an ambivalent form of care on the home front under contract with Home Intelligence beginning in April 1940. At that time, the German occupation of Denmark and Norway punctuated a period of anticipation on the home front and marked the beginning of a heightened crisis. In response to the rumour and apprehension that flourished in a ‘fast-moving sequence of military disasters’1 initiated that spring, including the taking of Paris, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the passage of the Emergency Powers Act at home, the MoI Home Intelligence division increased the frequency of its reports that tracked the indistinct object of home front morale to predict and to shape it. The tasks of Home Intelligence were initially imagined and brought into being by its director, Mary Adams, formerly a producer for BBC television. Acknowledging two forms of public resistance, both material and mental, it was the role of Home Intelligence to deal with the latter’s emotional and rational resistances.2 Adams determined that Home Intelligence must locate the sources of these resistances and keep its hand on the pulse of public opinion and feeling, monitoring their flux in response to events as they occurred to ensure that official publicity campaigns would resonate and intervene in ways favourable to the war effort.3
Home Intelligence’s constant assessment of the public’s morale was supported by a vast and partially covert network that extended beyond their own Regional Information Officers (RIOs), who reported on casual conversations and behaviour in public spaces. The Wartime Social Survey (WSS), conducted by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, also furnished critical information collected in door-to-door interviews that were analysed using social scientific methods. Postal censors made reports to RIOs based upon their perusals of letters, and the BBC passed on information derived from its listener research surveys. Political parties, the London Passenger Transport Board, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and even the Brewers’ Society were called upon to provide responses to Home Intelligence prompts.4 As noted, Mass Observation began a series of contracts to furnish Home Intelligence with reports on various subjects from the spring of 1940. This monitoring machinery was dispersed into minute spaces of everyday interactions. For instance, a small discouraged comment made during a visit to a local shop might be incorporated into these reports, as individuals whose employment brought them into concentrated daily interactions with others had been recruited to respond to inquiries about ‘the feelings of those with whom they came into contact’.5
Adams’s proposal to contract Mass Observation for Home Intelligence met with initial hesitation within the Ministry, since some considered the organization to be subversive. Indeed, several of Mass Observation’s key investigators and organizers had involvements with the Communist Party (Brian Allwood, Kathleen Box, Jack Fagan, Celia Fremlin, Charles Madge, Nina Masel, Henry Novy and John Sommerfield), trade union and other leftist groups. In response, Adams offered that it was crucial to distinguish between subversion and criticism, the latter of which could be valuable. In any case, she wrote,
I myself am satisfied that the machinery provided by Mass Observation will supply us with the facts we need, and that as a fact-finding organisation Mass Observation is ‘neutral’. But no man of Harrisson’s temperament and drive can be without ideas and even convictions. It is for us to use his findings and not his opinions. I believe, with supervision, we can do this.
In attempting to assuage the Ministry’s concerns about Mass Observation’s perceived politics, Adams nevertheless resorted to saying that contracting the organization would enable the Ministry to control them: ‘It would be useful if their resources were mobilised for our purposes rather than for their own,’ she argued.6 Mass Observation was contracted and, by September, the Ministry reported, ‘In emergency, Mass Observation is the most valuable piece of machinery Home Intelligence possesses.’7
Thus, Mass Observation was for a time an integral part of the network Home Intelligence managed, a network that it referred to internally as a ‘morale barometer’. Its reports were concerned with what people did, said and presumably thought, and yet they were often structured by apprehension about how civilians felt. The MoI considered the information that Home Intelligence provided to be integral to the department’s work and management of the ‘five menaces to public calm’: fear, confusion, suspicion, class-feeling and defeatism.8 According to a Ministry review of Home Intelligence, Mass Observation reports
directed attention to matters of particular topical importance and have supplied information as to the way in which the public is reacting to the news of the day, to public statements, and to the Ministry’s publicity measures. These reports have been used at the Ministry’s daily Press conferences; they have afforded evidence of need of information on many current problems, and have led the Ministry to promote broadcasts, to improve leaflets, to correct defects in distribution etc.9
Morale barometer was an animating metaphor for Home Intelligence’s vast observational machinery. Both Adams and Mass Observation used this atmospheric term,10 but Mass Observation likely borrowed from BBC Listener Research nomenclature of the ‘listening barometer’11 when calling for such a mechanism in the preface to their book-length study of the first four months of the war. War Begins at Home opened with: ‘We believe, basing our belief on much evidence 
 that one of the vital needs now in this war is that the Government should be fully aware of all the trends in civilian morale. They need an accurate machine for measuring such trends; a war barometer’.12 Due to her friendship with Harrisson, Adams was familiar with Mass Observation, which had previously done intermittent work for the MoI, including a request for the analysis of the red morale posters in 1939 that Mass Observation fulfilled despite the arrangement’s sudden cancellation. Thus, Mass Observation was contracted to provide reports to the MoI throughout the blitz13 on a vast array of subjects, from civilian sleep troubles, to reactions to events, to civilians’ use of leisure time. Such reports informed those that Home Intelligence in turn produced and disseminated as part of the Ministry’s communications tasks of ‘systematically making recommendation to government, producing unique, lengthy, detailed and generally accurate weekly reports on public opinion and public spirits’.14 According to a MoI document, Mass Observation’s study of morale in London’s East End during the blitz ‘provided much of the basis for action taken in evacuating women and children from Thames-side boroughs. Had Home Intelligence relied on its random contacts, the picture would have been overdrawn and a false impression produced.’15
The story that documents in the Mass Observation Archive suggestively tell about the organization’s tenure as an intelligence-gathering limb for the MoI has personal dimensions. As noted in the introduction, Mass Observation was a movement involving numerous participants across the country, who would have unevenly shared the goals that its early work articulated through its internal reports, publications and correspondence. Much of this was directed by its organizers and full-time investigators, and participants were not aware that the material was being reported to Home Intelligence. In many ways, the watchful caregiving that this chapter describes with respect to Mass Observation’s intelligence activity can be attributed to Harrisson’s belief that the war was necessary (many full-time observers were anti-war), and it was he who negotiated and managed Mass Observation’s formal relationship with the MoI. The contract with Home Intelligence was certainly not the sole reason for the dissolution of Harrisson and Charles Madge’s dynamic collaboration, but their disagreement about what it would mean for Mass Observation was a decisive breaking point. For Madge, reporting to the Ministry skirted too close to spying on the public and risked Mass Observation’s principle of independence. While Harrisson’s tendency towards self-publicity that his biographer says was often ascribed to him16 may have played part in his stubborn insistence to tie Mass Observation with government, the contents of the archive do not rule out self-promotion but nevertheless suggest there was more animating Harrisson and give insight into motivations that remained faithful to the movement’s interest in the making of a vibrant public sphere in Britain. These contracts presented Harrisson with a new route through which he could further Mass Observation’s objectives, critique leadership that was out of step with the lives of ordinary people, and inform policy that was responsive to broad lived experience rather than to paper plans. In doing so, Harrisson attempted to influence a more caring and participatory form of governance. To the extent that these efforts involved such close surveillance which hoped to penetrate the most intimate feelings of individuals, the implications of these activities remain politically ambivalent and furnish Nick Hubble’s concern that Mass Observation’s social therapeutic approach may have at times blurred into a form of social engineering.17
Due in part to Home Intelligence’s provisional adoption of Mass Observation’s concerns and theories of morale, opinion and rumour, much routine intelligence gathering and interventions into conduct that concerned morale was performed within a caregiving modality that was pastoral in character, exhibiting commitment to a secularized form of ...

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Citation styles for The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain
APA 6 Citation
Mair, K. (2022). The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2022)
Chicago Citation
Mair, Kimberly. (2022) 2022. The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Mair, K. (2022) The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Mair, Kimberly. The Biopolitics of Care in Second World War Britain. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.