The Mass Observation Project (MOP) is an ongoing volunteer writing-project. Running since 1981, it has involved more than 3,500 self-selected volunteer-writers who have responded in free-form to themed questions or ‘directives’ sent to them three times a year. Their responses include discussions of a broad range of issues relating to British society; as well as descriptions of their individual lives and activities. The MOP is thus a unique source of longitudinal secondary data.
This paper discusses a mixed-method study that drew on MOP writing to examine continuity and change in voluntary action between 1981 and 2012. The paper begins by discussing some of the methodological challenges involved in using MOP writing in a mixed-method study of voluntary action. It then examines some of the key insights that MOP writing has contributed to understanding voluntary action between 1981 and 2012. These include variations in how writers conceptualise and define volunteering, life-course trajectories in volunteering, and writers’ views on who should be responsible for the provision of certain services – voluntary initiative or the state.