What began as Jennifer Purcell’s UC Denver graduate research paper grew into an MA thesis, a doctoral dissertation, and a published book that earned Purcell a position and tenure as a Professor of History at Saint Michael’s College. Purcell’s interest in the mid-century British journal Mass Observation not only launched a successful career, but also helped spark a renewal of scholarship on the topic. Active from 1937 to the mid 60s, Mass Observation was a British research publication that attempted to record and analyze everyday life, primarily through questionnaires and diaries kept by their volunteers. The present-day Mass Observation Critical Series project, for which Purcell serves as a lead editor, aims to increase the accessibility of Mass Observation’s archival material through re-issued publications, thematic anthologies, and contemporary research from scholars like Purcell—who is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject.
Purcell’s interest in Mass Observation was sparked at UC Denver when she discovered the diary of Nella Last. Last had kept a diary for Mass Observation, and those written accounts inspired Purcell to write her MA thesis on Last and other British housewives during World War II. In fact, it was during a two-week research trip to the UK that she decided to pursue her History doctorate at the University of Sussex. During that doctoral research, Purcell struggled with the sheer volume of handwritten primary sources—mainly diaries—within the Mass Observation archives. She therefore developed a strategy to address the diaries only around major events and from randomly selected samples that spanned the time-period in question.
When she decided to expand her doctoral thesis into her first book, Domestic Soldiers, Purcell explains that she struggled to “rework the voice of the thesis to fit a popular audience.” She decided to focus more on the stories of the six women whose diaries she studied rather than theory and argumentation. During the next eight years she wrote her second book, Mother of the BBC: Mabel Constanduros and the Development of Light Entertainment on the BBC, 1925-1957. Reflecting on that time spent teaching and writing, Purcell mused, “It allowed my thoughts about the project to mature, and it gave me time to explore some topics with students in the classroom.” Purcell is currently working on a third book about the general public‘s perception of the British royalty from 1937-2022. Tentatively titled Observing the Royalty, it will be published as part of the Mass Observation Critical Series. She hopes to work on another publication in the future about the BBC and the public’s perception of the media during the 20th century. She also aspires to write a more diverse textbook for the Modern Europe survey course she teaches. If Dr. Purcell only had the time, she would “also love to write fiction!”
By Teddy Scott