The Mark Abrams Papers

The papers of the founding father of market research in Britain have now been fully catalogued.

Mark Abrams, c. 1956 (ABMS 8/1/22). Reproduced with permission of Dominic Abrams.

The full catalogue of the Mark Abrams papers is now available. Mark Abrams (1906–1994) was one of the pioneers of market research and opinion polling. Based in Britain’s biggest advertising agency, the London Press Exchange, he was at the heart of some of the most important social and cultural shifts of the mid-twentieth century, carrying out surveys into public attitudes for newspapers, retailers and manufacturers, universities, trade unions, new town planners, charities, broadcasters, and politicians. His research company’s private polls of so-called ‘swing voters’ for Labour helped the party sweep to power under Harold Wilson with the ‘Let’s GO with Labour’ election campaign in 1964. Abrams is credited with having established the widespread use of the ABC1 system of social classification, and was also a leading expert on politics, markets, and social change in his own right, in demand with both academic and popular audiences. His influential 1959 market research report The Teenage Consumer would help define the post-war explosion of a new, consumer-driven youth culture.

Mark Abrams, Managing Director of Research Services Ltd., c. 1957 (ABMS 8/1/23). Reproduced with permission of Dominic Abrams.

His archive contains a previously-catalogued collection of papers relating to his work during World War Two — Abrams was employed in the BBC’s Research Unit analysing overseas propaganda for the Ministry of Information — which can be studied at the Archives Centre alongside the papers relating to the BBC European Service broadcasts from the same period in the papers of Douglas Ritchie and Noel Newsome. The remainder of Abrams’s personal papers consists of materials connected with his market research surveys and social observation dating from the 1940s to the 1980s.

The archive also holds copies of some of Abrams’ early publications dating from the 1930s, including his contribution to the London Press Exchange’s path-breaking The Home Market and newspaper ‘Reader Interest’ surveys. Among the first large-scale statistical analyses to monitor the British public as consumers, these rivalled Mass Observation in providing detailed information on everyday habits, beliefs, and desires. Abrams would continue this research over the next three decades for a range of academic, commercial, and public sector clients under the umbrella of his own company, Research Services Ltd. During the 1970s he went on to conduct innovative surveys of living standards in different communities, first for the Survey Unit of the Social Science Research Council under the sociologist Michael Young, whose papers the Archives Centre also holds , and then as Research Director at Age Concern. The papers cover the entirety of Abrams’s career, giving a remarkable insight not only into his working life, but into a formative period in the development of British social science.

Mark Abrams, 19 September 1984. ©Dominic Abrams.

In contrast to Michael Young’s archive, which contains a significant quantity of correspondence arranged alphabetically, the largest series in Mark Abrams’s papers are the ‘working papers’ relating to specific pieces of research or subjects of interest. These consist of press cuttings, data from surveys and opinion polls, and reading notes, and also include related correspondence where relevant to individual surveys or publications. One effective way ‘in’ to the catalogue is to search across the collection by theme or index term, or alternatively use the advanced search to look for named individuals.

Looking through these voluminous files of annotated newspaper articles and handwritten memoranda, it is often hard not to feel as though you are rooting around in someone else’s internet history in paper form! One of the main aims in cataloguing and repackaging this material in new folders was to preserve the eclectic physical arrangement of each file, (hopefully) leaving hidden patterns and connections undisturbed. Abrams’s large-scale surveys for Research Services Ltd. collected data on public opinion with a view to creating statistically accurate pictures of social attitudes, but they did so for particular clients and interest groups with different agendas. Additional links are made in the updated catalogue between related files, making it possible to trace the evolution of individual market research surveys from notes, correspondence, and newspaper clippings, to questionnaires and collated data tables, through to publication in the form of a Research Services Ltd. report or journal article.

Aside from the context of Abrams’s market research surveys, the collection of working papers also provide a fascinating window into experiences of post-war change and politics in Britain as well as continental Europe and the United States, from the perspective of a London-based liberal intellectual and his preoccupations.

Opening up files of newspaper clippings on leisure and consumer spending, we find a nation energised by new technology, new towns, and new forms of communication, though obsessed by the dangers of too much (television) screen time. Working papers on race relations and religion include articles on the emergence of American-style evangelical preaching and ‘Powellism’ (see POLL) in British public life, while surveys of attitudes towards European economic integration and the common market reveal the reconfiguration of public apathy and antipathy towards Europe.

A number of folders contain materials related to the preparation for Abrams’s contributions to Labour’s public relations during the 1960s, including ideas for slogans, suggestions from members of the general public on how to defeat the Tories, and advertising manuals borrowed from John F. Kennedy’s election campaigns. To borrow a phrase from one of Abrams’s famous fictional contemporary advertising executives, the papers could almost be a ‘time machine’.

The updated catalogue replaces the existing box list and contains indexed descriptions of the contents of Abrams’s working papers, and a searchable list of the titles of his publications, articles, and lectures. There are also new sections for papers connected with Abrams’s membership on various committees, including working groups attached to the Labour Party; and unpublished materials relating to Research Services Ltd. surveys and interviewers. A recent, born digital accession, contains an illustrated 1984 oral history interview between Abrams and his grandson Dominic Abrams, the social psychologist (ABMS 7/1/2A).

Mark Abrams’s papers will be of interest to anyone researching social, cultural, or political history in twentieth-century Britain.

Catalogue to the Abrams Papers

—Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant, August 2017