Research in Worktown is alive and well

Sandie McHugh and colleagues follow up a 'Looking Back' from the March edition.

We welcome the recent article ‘Mass Observation – the science of ourselves’ from Graham Davies and Alan Costall (March 2019). As they describe, Tom Harrisson moved to Bolton in 1936 to turn his anthropological skills onto the northern working class in Worktown (Bolton). Here at the University of Bolton, we have the Centre for Worktown Studies (led by Professor Robert Snape), where current research projects in Worktown encompass social and cultural history, creative writing, drama, design, documentary photography and well-being.

The Centre recognises that Mass Observation’s 1938 survey of happiness in Bolton was one of the most innovative psychological explorations of British attitudes before the Second World War. In 2014, two of us (Sandie McHugh and Professor Jerome Carson) replicated this survey in collaboration with The Bolton News. Boltonians therefore had the opportunity to express their views on happiness, just as their predecessors had done 76 years earlier. Results from the comparative study ‘Happiness then and now’ were published in The Psychologist in May 2016. This, along with research on leisure, enjoyment and a special section on children were published as an in-depth study of the town in an edited book in 2017.

The idea of Worktown has been widely used in public engagement projects undertaken by the University and has proved to appeal across socio-economic and cultural population groups. A current doctoral study through the Octagon Theatre, for example, is using Worktown to enhance subjective well-being amongst socially disadvantaged women. This project has introduced them to the lives of women cotton operatives in the inter-war years and has enabled them to re-interpret Mass Observation’s documentation in various forms of cultural production. Its outcome will inform current thinking on the value of community history in improving mental health. Research in Worktown is very much alive and well.   

Sandie McHugh, Professor Robert Snape, Professor Jerome Carson
University of Bolton

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