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Geodemographics put me in my place - click opera
February 2010
 
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Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 12:00 am
Geodemographics put me in my place

I have a tendency to affirm, as if they were universally desireable or desired, certain virtues. For instance, I'll often champion high density public spaces (markets, public baths, pedestrian squares) where different types of people mingle. Or I'll declare that it's good to step out of your "me-and-my-friends" virtual networks and actually be affable to some random meatspace stranger instead.

Because I approve of these things, I pricked up my ears when Laurie Taylor, on my favourite BBC Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed, interviewed an academic called Sophie Watson about her new book "City Publics: The (dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters" (Routledge), "the story of how people rub along -- or fail to rub along -- in the public spaces of the city".



Watson is interested, she says in her interview with Laurie, in "the choreography of encounters". Her ideal city square is the 14th century Campo Santa Margherita in Venice, a vibrant car-free place slightly off the beaten tourist track -- but near the university -- boasting a flower market, quirky shops, and -- as I discovered when I did my Venice podcast last year -- a cunningly hidden modern supermarket.

Watson shares my hero Richard Sennett's concern that urban places where we fruitfully encounter, and are enriched by, The Other are being eroded and lost in the UK. One she visited, the York Hall public bath in Bethnal Green, closed down the day after she saw it, only to re-open refurbished as a more upmarket privatized leisure centre. So Watson's praise of a place where people of all shapes and cultures could mingle and "produce their bodies" was laced with a tone of elegy.

But there's irony in the fact that the values Watson was elaborating here can be very precisely situated. According to Richard Webber, the next guest on the show, his Mosaic software can narrow such attitudes down to two of 61 consumer types, sketched out in "pen portraits" on their website. Or, as fellow guest Roger Burrows puts it, "very precise codifications of what Bourdieu would call habitus, summations of things like voting behaviour, preferences, characteristics".



Mosaic is "geodemographic" software. It works by correlating data (Experian Lifestyle surveys, MORI's Financial Survey, Family Expenditure Surveys) to the UK's 1.6 million postcodes -- there's one for every 20 households, so they're quite precise markers. Mosaic derives 61 "lifestyle types" based on 400 variables. Webber demonstrates this technique, cheekily, by situating Watson's attitudes as a combination of Type E33, "Town Gown Transition" and Type E31 "Caring Professionals".

Both types crop up in the category "Urban Intelligence". (Other categories: Symbols of success, Happy Families, Suburban Comfort, Ties of Community, Welfare Borderline, Municipal Dependency, Blue Collar Enterprise, Twilight Subsistence, Grey Perspectives and Rural Isolation.)

E33s (Town Gown Transition) are post-materialists with links to academia. They don't really differentiate work from leisure. They like contemporary, experimental art. They don't have much money, and spend what they have on eating out, buying magazines, and foreign travel. "Their construction of identity might be quite playful," says the Mosaic pen portrait. E31s are progressives, tolerant of diversity -- but paradoxically intolerant of people they see as intolerant. They're into "being" rather than "having", eat vegetarian or organic food, and read The Independent or The Guardian.

As a matter of fact, having plowed with some fascination through the Mosaic pen portraits (you need to download both the brochure pdf and the group and type descriptions doc from this page), I find these are the categories that best describe me too -- hence my attraction, I suppose, to Watson's thesis. The thing is, these two categories account for only 1.08% and 0.76%, respectively, of UK households.

Compare that to the 2.84% of UK households who are Type C16s (Suburban Comfort: likes gardening, supports local church, enjoys country restaurants, loves Marks and Spencer and the local butcher) or the 3.08% who are Type C18s (Sprawling Subtopia: the middle aged middle classes who take pride in their homes and their cars, work as administrators and supervisors in local factories, and enjoy cruises and coach trips), or the 3.17% belonging to White Van Culture (fairly self-explanatory) and you see what we're up against, at least when it comes to convincing others that our values should be theirs. What's more, Mosaic tells us that it's the Suburban Comfort type -- people who don't care for living with the racially other or "the choreography of encounters" -- who are "representative of mainstream tastes and attitudes on just about everything".

When you look at the specificity of these types, there seems to be little hope that people are going to reach out to some random stranger on the street. Forced into proximity, it seems that some of these people would rather strangle than embrace "the Other". What emerges, then, is Watson as a bien pensant upper middle class liberal academic making an attempt to proclaim the things she likes universal virtues. Do I only agree with her idea of embracing "the Other" because she thinks exactly like me? Have we both come to our love of the non-indigenous urban poor because we disdain the same white Daily Mail types who disdain immigrants -- and us? Is that why our image of "reaching out" is a 14th century Italian square rather than a British shopping mall?

Yes, geodemographics can really put you in your place -- folding your high-minded advocacy of "universal" values into your Fair Trade briefcase, most likely. The danger of the technique should be obvious, though -- it's likely to lead us to the view that Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Gautama only held the attitudes they did because they were the son of a carpenter from Nazareth (postcode NZ10 4GP) and the son of a prince with three palaces, respectively, and that we'd only tend to agree with their outlook on life if we fit those specifications too. Unless, of course, we belong to that tiny minority, the type who like people because they're unlike us.

22CommentReply

niemandsrose
niemandsrose
Niemandsrose
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 10:02 pm (UTC)

"Urban Intelligence" is Richard Florida's thing, isn't it? That the "Urban Intelligence" are actually critical to making the wealth happen, such that "Suburban Comfort" types are, well, dependent on us, ja nai?

Another thought on we E33s (Town Gown Transition): in the US we spend all our money on student loans. Then on eating out, magazines, and foreign travel. ('Cept some put that stuff on credit cards and then are truly screwed.)


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trini_naenae
trini_naenae
trini_naenae
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 10:09 pm (UTC)

Haha, of course, we're all in debt because of student loans. I'm doing my best to not ever get a student loan, but then I go to a community college, so I doubt that really counts.


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trini_naenae
trini_naenae
trini_naenae
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 10:07 pm (UTC)

Fascinating. From a quick read through, I could probably agree. I'll have to read it again (when I have more time and I'm done with my errands) so I can give a proper response.

One thing about the face to face vs. virtual stuff. Check out http://www.utata.org/ and I think you'd find that it's not a "me and my friends" kind of place. While there is the common interest in photography, and a rule that everyone must play nice, there is a diverse (and large) group of people interacting.


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pop__kandy
pop__kandy
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 10:23 pm (UTC)
geodemographics can really only predict behaviours

Full disclosure: one of our firm's clients is a prominent Toronto geodemographics company. (In fact, we share offices with them.)

To some extent, yes, people really are self-stratifying into lifestyle clusters and cliques (is there one for Former Goth turned Entrepreneur?) and given how we meet people with common interests through things like Flickr, blogs, livejournal, and real-world meetups, it's sort of a process of selection where you don't end up meeting people outside those interest groups.

That said, the people you do meet, while sharing a lot of those surface characteristics, tend to be wildly divergent otherwise.

In terms of where people live -- isn't that just always a case of market forces in action? Those with the money to live in a trendier neighborhood will do, where those without will live 'adjacent' as they say in estate agents' terminology, or find the best value for money elsewhere. One assumes shared values that lead people to choose to live somewhere (move to the suburbs to escape a decrepit downtown, such as in the 60s and 70s; those suburban kids move back to downtown to recolonize newly gentrified neighborhoods through the 90s and 2000s)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 10:33 pm (UTC)
Re: geodemographics can really only predict behaviours

Being a bit of a post-structuralist, I'm pretty suspicious of this idea of "self-stratifying clusters". Webber claimed in the show that "when we build these classifications we have no theory at all and we allow the data to organize itself itself in ways which seem to have the best ability to predict differences in consumption".

But Burrows was more into the idea that these classifications actually became self-fulfilling prophecies -- that it was life, in other words, that got organized by this data, imitating art, as it were:

"It's been called by some cultural geographers "the automatic production of space": the idea that these descriptions reside within software that can sort places in terms of where new stores are, where new services are, which can attract the sorts of people who like going to those stores, who will then receive subscriptions to the Spectator or whatever... So there is a really interesting recursivity between the description -- the virtual description -- and what actually happens on the
ground."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 10:46 pm (UTC)
Re: geodemographics can really only predict behaviours

I'm particularly suspicious of this data because the 61 pen portraits are such creative little cameos of British character types, reminiscent of social sketches and stereotypical characters from 19th century British novels. Saying this data "self-stratified" is a bit like saying "The Pickwick Papers" or "Vanity Fair" just wrote themselves.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 11:05 pm (UTC)
Re: geodemographics can really only predict behaviours

Oh no, i didn't mean to imply that the data self-stratifies -- people do that all on their own. The software rather plays catch-up, as you say, to events on the ground. But yes, the recursivity is the interesting thing. In a city like Montreal where the anglo hipster/creative community is small, intertwined (almost incestuous) I've often thought one might apply wildlife observation techniques -- radio tag them and track their movements - but you can draw a very tight web-map between two alternative papers, several bands and DJs, and creative-class / artist / entrepreneur types living all relatively close to each other - and the interaction of all their activities...Joe's nightclub hosts Jane's fashion show DJ'd by Jon...


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jack.dahlgren.myopenid.com
jack.dahlgren.myopenid.com
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 11:13 pm (UTC)
Re: geodemographics can really only predict behaviours

Momus,

Suspicion of 61 levels of stratification seems justified. 61 levels is a LOT of stratification. Some one had to draw the lines to come up with a number of classes between 2 and say the population of the UK. Personally In the case of public spaces I'd draw a single line between people who like to be surrounded by the different and those that draw comfort from the familiar. The paradox is that a 14th century Italian Piazza is both different and familiar (at least to those who seek the different...)

Not having read the cameos, are they just tags for the character types or are they the types themselves? Were they fit to the data or the other way around?


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maybeimdead
maybeimdead
Maybe I'm Dead
Fri, Mar. 2nd, 2007 03:41 am (UTC)
Re: geodemographics can really only predict behaviours

But Burrows was more into the idea that these classifications actually became self-fulfilling prophecies -- that it was life, in other words, that got organized by this data, imitating art, as it were

wow i've never even seen this imomus post. yes i've read the same thing about economic models conditioning the behaviour of economic agents. If economic models became the paradigm to interact in a market, then market behaviour can become self-fulfilling. (And any ideology that comes along with that economic modeling may perpetuate, possibly.)


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Nov. 21st, 2006 11:56 pm (UTC)
r.e. Geodemographics

Geodemographics or social pigeonholing? I am a white van driving building contractor who enjoys the interests and diversions that Webber's E33s would perhaps like to think off as being their's alone(this is a cry for help, I need a slot to fit my paradox into) Whilst this stuff is good for a giggle and can throw up more tinned sterotypes than a mid-period Blur album, spend a little more time around meatspace strangers and it all sounds like an extrapoled frou-frou form of applied class division.


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lobsterbelle
lobsterbelle
-
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 01:57 am (UTC)

It's pretty expensive, but this book is awesome:

http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Places-Memorials-Australian-Landscape/dp/0522847528


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 04:50 am (UTC)
I will bite you, publicly

<< When you look at the specificity of these types, there seems to be little hope that people are going to reach out to some random stranger on the street. >>

No one is authorized to speak to me on the street. Sorry, you need clearance for that. AND DON'T FUCKING TOUCH ME EITHER.

Reminds me of Paul Theroux's Ozone. Everyone moved around in masks. I would like that.

I don't want to make friends on the street. When a pamphleteer reaches out to me, I spit on their hand. Some girl comes up to me says "bla bla help us put a Democrat in office" I'm like honey I could put two democrats in office while you void your bowels tomorrow.

DONT SPEAK TO ME IN PUBLIC PLACES that's not what they're there for. They're there to get me some place else.

zz


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 10:46 am (UTC)
Re: I will bite you, publicly

Anon: DONT SPEAK TO ME IN PUBLIC PLACES that's not what they're there for. They're there to get me some place else.

And when your levels of bile and hatred reach a critical mass and the resulting reaction causes your kidneys to explode, leaving you flailing around on the floor I hope you'll get your wish and be left to expire quietly.

Would you react with such opprobrium if someone smiled and offered a greeting? How about a lost child looking for its mother? A confused tourist seeking direction?

You're a bit of a twat, aren't you?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 12:57 pm (UTC)
sneer

<< Would you react with such opprobrium if someone smiled and offered a greeting? How about a lost child looking for its mother? A confused tourist seeking direction? >>

Somehow I get asked for directions a lot. Even in cities I've never been before. Like London. Like I know London, but when Tom and I were there we got stopped by other tourists. I am always impeccably polite when someone stops me a reason other than their own agenda. And as for children? The other day I saw an unattended three-year-old walking north on piedmont avenue and I stood there and watched the kid till I figured out his Mom was actually close by.

Asshole, I may be anonymous but at least I sign my posts.

zzberlin@mac.com


ReplyThread Parent
mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 11:00 am (UTC)

The information gathered by Mosaic is collected so that it can be used by business to target the marketing of their products. So, if a particular street is defined as belonging to a particular Mosaic category (or Acorn code), marketers are going to send specific types of promotional bumph, which they think suits that demographic. Assuming the advertsing works (which it does, or they wouldn't do it), the categories become self-fulfilling when people buy into the predefined lifestyle punted at them. I live in an 'poor' area and get a lot of junk mail advertising 49% APR loans - the one thing guaranteed to keep people poor.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 11:52 am (UTC)

It's fascinating to think that when we walk down a street now, its character may well have been changed by marketing software.

When I wrote about moving into my new area in Wired I did really want to change the place into something more like my fantasy of what I'd like it to be like, though, I must admit. And soon after that article ran, a shop opened on my street selling Japanese indie CDs and old copies of FRUiTS magazine, and exhibiting Japanese artists! So it worked!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 07:49 pm (UTC)
lets run this mega mall up the pole and see if anyone salutes

Possibly your Wired article was a factor Nick, ultimately however I would tend to agree more with Mc Gazz' contribution specifically that geo-demographic information when utilized and applied by marketers tends to have pernicious results. a drive around the soulless sub-divisions of suburban Americana tends to inform one of what the marketer created urban enviroment constitutes. Those specialty (or just peculiar) little shops that we love have no place in the marketer's lexicon.


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pop__kandy
pop__kandy
Sun, Nov. 26th, 2006 08:50 am (UTC)
Re: lets run this mega mall up the pole and see if anyone salutes

there's two sides to the equation, though: producers cannot sell things to people that they genuinely do not want. And as I keep repeating, marketing is not advertising is not sales. Marketing is closer to the geodemographic research side of things - finding out what the market wants and tailoring or developing products to meet that need. Sadly the term has become conflated with 'advertising' or 'design' and it shouldn't be.

Marketers didn't invent the postwar suburban sprawlscape all on their own: Middle-income, ex-GI families bought into it to escape the then-decrepit, post-Depression inner cities and get "the good life" they'd been promised (or later, as in Detroit, as 'white flight').

In the intervening generational cycles, marketers probably did more extensive research to tailor their product to what the market wanted -- gated communities for the rich, exurban 'new towns' for those who wanted to live closer to actual countryside, McMansions for arriviste gits, gentrified factory loft city condos for the hip person with no kids, and all sorts of things in between.

The specialty shops are in fact marketing working at its best, having discovered a profitable niche and working that seam as best they can. If these things don't exist in the exurbs, it's because the population density and/or demographic breakdown doesn't really support it. As satellite towns grow to become 'edge cities' in their own right, the diversity of traditional cities follows, although not along good urban-planning lines most likely...if you have to drive to get there, it's failed in my view.


ReplyThread Parent
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Sun, Nov. 26th, 2006 02:49 am (UTC)

this reminds me a bit of the island of social critics at the end of "brave new world". It may happen - that the world becomes a kind of huge mall and we move to where we can purchase what we want - but thankfully we have the internet so location becomes less important.
Anyway - personality transcends buying habits and I've met the nicest frat boys, the lousiest organic food eaters and vice versa.

And talking about japanese indie rock you should check out murr*murr
http://www.myspace.com/murrmurrmusic
As a disclaimer they are my friends band but I think you might like them.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 12:56 pm (UTC)
mosaic metonymy

hi momus seems you try to understand current(liberal democratic)human relation from position of the euphoric individual the interface s body and technology ?sociological whilst lamenting the retreat of subjectivity fromthe public space(S).
By identifying ourselves as fitting into idiotic positions of marketing wet dreaming analysts IKEA bracketting we would identify our subjectivity our creative potential with the ego ideal posited by the supposed desire of the Other. what is important here is not to identify, the desire of the Other is enigmatic cannot be known. This is the point where the confusing tramatic desire of the other gets easily reconfigured as the figure of the demanding devouring Other. Too subjectivise this desire of the Other ,in other words to step out of both Freudian castration and Marxist alienation (the workers and the unconscious chains of automatons signifier ,metonymy, rather than accepting the substituting stupidity of the signifier of the Others desire,we got to shake up the configuration of our fudamental fantasy which maintains our relation to the Other by attempting to consolidate(stucture)a coherent subject, the ideal ,the ideological ,the sexed, the cultural etc, figures of representation.
SO rather than accepting the desire of the Other as something we aspire to<idealism, we should recognise in the futility at these bastardised attempts an actual way out of the mind fucking aotomatism of metonymy. DEsire being fleetingly glimpsed and enigmatic. We discern that it is the actual desirousness ,the ability to be desiring,a desiring subject ,that magic substance which Plato sees in Socrates,and calls it Agalma (Symposium),which may become not our s but the cause of our desire. The desiring being based on the otherts lack,the desiring referring to the phallus that is something we can never have,as assumed being human once we have it we dont desire it,and so the metonymy of capitalist substitutions, Here again we witness the collapse of the two other and Other,resulting in further alienation and paranoid splitting into love hate rivalries ,precisely what is demanded of us by marketing Other.Yet more alienation within the Other as language and as desire. Rather than identifying with the desire(demand) of the Other, that is in order to escape the imaginary trappins of both western suffering and japanese cuteness ,and we know about these,we need to continually shake up the fantasy by reconfiguring oue relation to this identification ,be wary of the image,the ego idealism. By acknowledging the enigma of the others desire we can maintain a distance of dignity rather than exotically attempting to cannibalise the others desire through identification(LOVE or HATE). By situating our own split subjectivity in that magical void ,in that enignatic space of the Cause of the subject ,the desire of the other,the difficult task of assuming our own cause ,the possibility of escape from the mosaic metonymy market place that reduces us to player in a prescribe roles of competitors in love hate ego relations.Cultural rivalries<wars,orientalism .exoticisms etc,.., desubjectivise the other by identifyin their desire as something we can grasp,get hold of , understand the kernel, the truth of their precious substance.their desiring being.LOVE? I dont think so!!! BY avoiding over identification,loving ,therapeutic,imaginary and marketing proximity we can cross over positions and assume our own cause in the place where the Others desire ,a foreign alien desire once had been. this is the meaning of FReuds "where it was there I shall be". The traversing of the fantasy afterafter seperating from the mOthers desire The professionalisation of emotionsand the cognitive rehash of Nietzche Kafkas and FReuds dicovery of anxiety and unconscious, the pharmacological suppression of the split subject of of unconscious desire that interrupts the metonymic mosaic of caoitals signifying automaton.The assumption of our tramatic experience between language andthe experience of pleasure\pain that is jouissance.Traversing the fantasy , we subjectivise this tramatic encounter with the others desire, we assume responsibility for jouissance unconscious hate and its counterpart lack of distance in love or exoticism. Enda.


ReplyThread Parent
jmathewes
Jocelyn Mathewes
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 02:33 pm (UTC)

Unless, of course, we belong to that tiny minority, the type who like people because they're unlike us.

It's difficult to say that there's "little hope" that folks will reach out to people who are unlike them. As far as public places go, I think they succeed in that there's a generally-accepted low level of intimacy there. Everyone's there for their own reasons--not necessarily the same as yours--but you both have at least something in common: you know of this place, you come to it, pass through it, live nearby, etc., etc. It's not much, but it's enough to make community centered around a place (even with conflicting personal desires and interest) possible.

I've noticed that in my personal relationships, the level of intimacy with a given person tends to increase with more similarities in worldview, personality traits, background, and the like. So, my close friends and I tend to have a lot "in common,"--even the ones with whom I disagree vehemently on social issues or even lifestyle choices.

So in public places, while the level of intamcy level of intimacy I expect from people there is very low, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that I could find a person with whom I might experience more. The place itself can become a rallying and connecting point. That's why public places where a wide variety of people can come together are so important for inspiring civic action, IMO.

(I hope this wasn't too rambly or incoherent.)


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cardindex
cardindex
cardindex
Wed, Nov. 22nd, 2006 06:47 pm (UTC)

I know it's customary for Click Opera readers to compliment you on your writing and choice of subject every time you post but...nonetheless, excellent stuff.


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