November 22nd, 2006


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.