Buckingham Palace with crowds on the Mall

Barry Leventhal

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the MRS conference presentation that brought geodemographics to the attention of a wide audience of market researchers.  Therefore it is appropriate that the archive includes a section for materials documenting geodemographic developments, products and solutions which should be of great interest to many current researchers.

A number of early papers are on their way into the archive – this update identifies some of those from the early days, going back to projects from the 1970s that underpinned the development of area classifications.

In the UK, much of this work was being carried out in the 1970s by Richard Webber, while at the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES).  Webber’s projects progressed from regional studies to national studies and from large area to small area classifications.

For example, an early regional project was the Liverpool Social Area Study (1975) which is being included in the archive.

A couple of years later, this was followed by the first national classifications, which were joint projects between the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) and CES.

A series of national classifications were produced at different levels of geography, and the archive will include example results for the segmentation of wards and parishes, based on 40 variables from the 1971 Census.  These clusters were then amalgamated to form seven ‘families’ – the archive document demonstrates their performance and maps their occurrence in different parts of the country.

This classification was the forerunner of ACORN; its utility to market research was examined by Ken Baker, John Bermingham and Colin McDonald in their 1979 MRS Conference paper. They identified the enormous potential of the technique as a market research tool, and so this moment is generally regarded as the launch of the geodemographics industry.

However, the classification did not go unchallenged – in 1980, Stan Openshaw and colleagues published a critique of the national classifications, pointing out that the results were highly dependent upon the methods used and decisions taken during the classification process.

Richard Webber very swiftly wrote a response to this critique; both the critique and the response are being included in the archive.

The new classification was acquired by CACI and rebranded ACORN – the archive will include CACI reports and documentation from the early 80s.

The mid-80s was a period of great activity in the industry amongst the commercial companies which exploited the new technique.  The academics responded with their own classification in 1985, launching SuperProfiles – their paper, to be found in the archive, describes it as ‘A poor man’s ACORN’.

And so the geodemographics industry, which will be 40 years old next year, was born – key steps in its conception will be found in the archive.

  • Webber RJ. Liverpool social area study, 1971 Data. Centre for Environmental Studies; London: 1975. PRAG Technical Paper 14.
  • Webber RJ. OPCS/CES Classification of Wards and Parishes in Great Britain, 1977.
  • Webber RJ. Parliamentary constituencies : a socio-economic classification.
  • Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, 1978.
  • Occasional paper – Office of Population Censuses and Surveys ; 13.
  • Openshaw S, Cullingford D, Gillard A. A critique of the national classifications of OPCS/PRAG. Town Planning Review. 1980;51 (4):421.
  • Webber RJ. A response to the critique of the national classifications of OPCS/PRAG. The Town Planning Review. 1980;51 (4):440–50.
  • Charlton ME, Openshaw S, Wymer C. Some new classifications of census enumeration districts in Britain: A poor man’s ACORN. Journal of Economic and Social Measurement. 1985;13:69–96.

Contributed by Barry Leventhal
Date posted: 22nd January 2018


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