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Understanding social change through autobiographical narrative

How do the diaries and memoirs of ordinary British people reflect periods of intense social change? The first phase of this project explores how writing about themselves helped people understand and adapt to the uncertainty of two periods of rapid change in British History (1937-45 and 1976-87) through research into the Mass Observation Archive (The Keep, Falmer, Brighton), and the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies (Special Collections, Brunel University Library).

The project (A) investigates how such autobiographical narratives recorded social change; (B) analyses qualitatively how narrative self-reflexivity enabled individuals to cope with paradigmatic social change by adjusting their expectations and values; and (C) will go on to apply the methodologies developed to diaries and memoirs being written today in order to explore the social values and structures of feeling emerging from the rapid social change of the 21st Century.

Results will be of interest to academics, policy makers and members of the public interested in finding out the benefits of autobiographical self-reflexive writing and whether we can extrapolate from today’s private thoughts to tomorrow’s public opinion. Updates, findings and results are disseminated via the project blog, social media, public talks, conference papers and academic publications. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected this project, like everything else, but it has also provided an unprecedented opportunity to experience and witness at first hand a period of intense social change. While it was impossible to access archives for long periods due to the lockdowns and various travel restrictions, there has been time for lots of autobiographical self-reflexive writing. The insights afforded by this participant observation have cast valuable light on how we use writing to adjust to social change.

On 16 June 2021, the Principal Investigator drew on this experience as part of a talk to the ‘Using Mass Observation’s Covid-19 Collections’ Online Seminar Series on ‘Self-Reflexive Writing, Everyday Life and Social Change in Mass Observation Narratives’ which is available on below (starts at 32:16).

Further autobiographically inflected outputs will follow alongside more traditional research outputs.

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  • Nick Hubble, Mass Observation and Everyday Life, Second Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Nick Hubble, 'Documenting Lives: Mass Observation, Women's Diaries, and Everyday Modernity' in Adam Smyth, ed., A History of English Autobiography, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 345-58.
  • Nick Hubble, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
  • Ben Clarke and Nick Hubble, eds, Working-Class Writing: Theory and Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
  • Nick Hubble, Jennie Taylor and Philip Tew, eds, Growing Old with the Welfare State, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 
  • Nick Hubble, ‘“You’re not in the market at Shielding, Joe”: Beyond the Myth of the “Thirties”’ in Nick Hubble, Luke Seaber and Elinor Taylor, eds, The 1930s: A Decade of Modern British Fiction, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 17-57.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Professor Nick Hubble - I am Professor of Modern and Contemporary English, Co-Director of the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing (BCCW), and Convenor of the MA in English. Formerly, I have successfully filled many roles including Head of English and both Director of Research and Director of Teaching and Learning for Arts & Humanities at Brunel. I hold a BA in Philosophy and Literature (Essex), a PGCE in Secondary English (Sussex), an MA in Critical Theory (Sussex), a DPhil (on George Orwell and Mass-Observation) in English Literature (Sussex) and a PGCert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (Brunel). I am the author of Mass Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory (2006, second edition 2010) and The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (2017). I am co-author (with Philip Tew) of Ageing, Narrative and Identity (2013). I am the co-editor (with Aris Mousoutzanis) of The Science Fiction Handbook (2013), (with Philip Tew) of London in Contemporary British Fiction (2016), (with Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Joseph Norman) of The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks (2018), (with Ben Clarke) of Working-Class Writing: Theory and Practice (2018), and (with Jennie Taylor and Philip Tew) of Growing Old with the Welfare State (2019). I am one of the series editors (with Philip Tew and Leigh Wilson) of The Decades Series: British Fiction with Bloomsbury Academic. So far, I have co-edited five volumes in this series: (with John Mcleod and Philip Tew) The 1970s (2014), (with Philip Tew and Leigh Wilson) The 1990s (2015), (with Nick Bentley and Leigh Wilson) The 2000s (2015), (with Nick Bentley and Alice Ferrebe) The 1950s (2018), and (with Luke Seaber and Elinor Taylor) The 1930s (2021).

Related Research Group(s)


Contemporary Writing - The group facilitates, promotes and disseminates cutting-edge creative, critical and socially-engaged work within English Studies and affiliated fields.

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UKRI Research England

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Project last modified 02/09/2021