Social profiling has become big business and high tech. David Rudlin traces its history back to a team of Victorians pounding the streets

David Rudlin_index

A few years ago I was sitting with my family waiting for a ferry to France when we were pigeonholed. A researcher with a clipboard came along the line of cars doing a survey for the ferry company. She only had one question: what newspaper do you read? Our income, qualifications and even occupations were probably not dissimilar to the Daily Mail-reading family in the Mondeo behind us. But by knowing we took the Guardian and clocking our beaten-up Citroen she could draw a range of conclusions about our attitudes, consumer preferences and politics.

The experience of watching the US election coverage this week caused me to recall this incident. We finally got to see people out on the street of the big cities celebrating Biden’s victory. These people had been largely absent from the election coverage because they are less telegenic than Trump supporters. Having only been to the US a few times, and never ventured outside the large cities, I found it reassuring to realise that the America that I experienced is still there.

There is a long history of social pigeonholing. It goes back to the Liverpool merchant Charles Booth who in the 1880s had a public disagreement about the claim that 25% of Londoners lived in poverty. He thought the figure was much higher and worried about the possibility of revolution. So he employed a team of researchers to walk every street in London putting each house into one of nine categories on a series of maps, from “low class, vicious, semi-criminal”, in dark blue, to “wealthy upper class” in gold. The bottom three blue categories were defined as being in poverty and accounted for 35% of the population (thereby allowing Booth to invent the poverty line and win the argument).

A more sophisticated system was developed in the 1970s by Professor Richard Webber who was asked by the Labour government to identify the parts of the country that should be targeted by inner city policy. He reasoned that you couldn’t just go on the basis of income or even class, and so developed the “Acorn” system of social classification which he was able to map by postcode, thereby inventing the discipline of geodemographics.

The Centre for Environmental Studies where this work was done was abolished by the incoming Thatcher government but it wasn’t long before the marketing industry saw the potential. Their interest was not so much in locating poverty as in understanding the middle classes. It seems obvious now, but at the time it came as a revelation to realise that not all middle class people thought the same way. Suburban middle classes tended to read the Telegraph, be socially conservative and play golf while their urban counterparts read the Guardian, were socially liberal and played tennis, despite having the same education, income and even jobs. Webber went to work for the American marketing company CACI before joining Experian and developing the Mosaic system.

Mosaic maps are something we often use as urbanists; indeed we recently bought a set for the towns we are studying as part of our town centre research. They give an instant graphic picture of the demographics of a place from the purples and blues of the suburbanites, the greens of the liberals and the yellows shading into red of the working classes.

Each of the Mosaic categories was given a name and illustrated with a typical couple. So Rupert and Felicity were “symbols of success”, while Darren and Joanna were “happy families” living in new suburbs and watching Sky TV. There was also Joseph and Agnes as “welfare borderline” in low-wage employment reading the Sun, Dean and Mandy as “blue collar enterprise” and Wayne and Leanne as “municipal dependency”. The Mondeo family behind us in that ferry queue were probably Geoffrey and Valerie with moderate incomes reading the Daily Mail while we would have been Ben and Chloe, “urban intelligence” living in inner urban areas reading the Guardian and working as architects (I made the last bit up).

These categories are from the 2004 version of Mosaic and they have since been amended to make them more politically correct. However this system of social categorisation has had profound consequences on society. I have no idea whether Booth’s maps were used by marketing companies and politicians (I bet they were) but that is certainly how Mosaic is used. Jon Ronson in a Guardian investigation into the aggressive lending tactics of credit card companies showed how they used Mosaic to shower junk mail offering high-interest loans on the most vulnerable households. Supermarkets use the system to identify their customers and political parties use it in their election campaigns, nuancing their message even within constituencies depending on the attitudes predicted by Mosaic. And of course this is all now supercharged by social media.

What is however strangely reassuring is the diversity of the 11 categories and the fact that the population is broadly distributed across them, each making up between 5 and 12% of the country. While Mosaic will predict who we are and who we will vote for just from our postcode it is also reassuring to see from the maps how diverse most places are. If only we could celebrate this diversity rather than focusing solely on our tribe and assuming everyone is, or should be, like us – and yes that includes you, Ben and Chloe.