Thinking Allowed: Maps and Postcodes

I had the pleasure of speaking to Professor Laurie Taylor last week, in an episode of his programme Thinking Allowed, which has been running for many years on BBC Radio 4. I was invited to discuss my most recent book, Mapping Society: The spatial dimensions of social cartography, published with UCL Press last month.[1]

Click here to listen to the programme:

Mapping Society does several things: it is a chronology of the evolution of social cartography, from focus on disease in the early parts of the 19th century, to a shift to poverty towards the end of the century and then to crime in the opening decades of the 20th century. It also takes each cartographic type and shows how it is used in a variety of disciplines today, from planning, urban design through to public health – where arguably it started in fact. It also traces the evolution in types of social survey but most importantly, emphasises the spatial dimensions of urban society. In short, it focuses on the complexities of social maps, by using space syntax, a theory and method for analysing urban spatial systems as way into studying the spatial structure of social patterns.

I was a guest of Thinking Allowed alongside Professor Roger Burrows from Newcastle University, whose recent book[2] (co-authored with the inventor of the Mosaic classification system, Richard Webber) employs geodemographic profiles to categorise people on the basis of their geographical location, namely, according to the characteristics of their immediate neighbours (rather than based on personal characteristics, such as age). Now while I agree with the authors about the origins of social enquiry stemming from Charles Booth, I have a different interpretation of Booth’s aggregation of resident populations as involving a ‘neighbourhood effect’.

Booth classified streets rather than localities, and this was I believe an approach that very much recognised the importance of the spatial configuration of a person’s home address in shaping their opportunities. Indeed I maintain that the ‘neighbourhood effect’ is anchored in the opportunities that the streets where you live give you to mix both with people like yourself and those unlike yourself. As I’ve written elsewhere in response to Robert J Sampson’s brilliant study of disadvantage in Chicago,[3] the ‘why’ or ‘how’ neighbourhood effects emerge might help us draw broader lessons about the interrelationship between street configuration and social outcomes. For example, is segmentation of a deprived neighbourhood from places of work or lack of accessibility to education opportunities a factor in the entrenched persistence of its deprivation?

Booth’s use of the street – or frequently the street segment – as the unit of analysis was a fundamental component in shaping thinking at the time regarding how best to intervene in an apparently problem area, as it emphasised the tractability and specificity of the problem. As O’ Day and Englander have written, Booth’s premise was that that empirically derived evidence of distress was necessary before policy decisions could be taken by government.[4] In a sense, the moral geography that his classifications suggest moved his contemporaries’ thinking away from simply labelling an area as disordered, and therefore subject to deviant behaviour, towards refocusing efforts on the buildings and streets that were part of the problem. Unfortunately, this is something that we frequently forget nowadays when we allow ecological fallacies to write off areas, such as approaches that label areas as being prone to crime, without getting to grips with the underlying causes of crime, nor indeed the nature of that crime.

The images below are from a book chapter that I wrote for a Museum of London Docklands exhibition on the East End at the time of Jack the Ripper, that attempted to dispel the industry around his murders by contextualising the setting with academic scholarship (see chapter here: Mapping the East End ‘Labyrinth’.)

[1] Vaughan L. (2018) Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography, London: UCL Press.

[2] Webber R and Burrows R. (2018) The Predictive Postcode: The Geodemographic Classification of British Society: SAGE Publications.

[3] Sampson R. (2012) Great American City: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] O’Day R and Englander D. (1993) Mr. Charles Booth’s Inquiry: life and labour of the people in London reconsidered, London: Hambledon Press.

BBC programme on maps

Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession: episode 2 – Spirit of the Age

In a rather neat coincidence, a TV programme from 2010 that features some of the key maps that I discuss in Mapping Society, such as John Snow’s map of cholera in Soho, Charles Booth’s maps of poverty, and the 1900 rare map of Jewish East London is showing on the BBC iplayer for the next few days. It features Professor Danny Dorling, Ed Parsons from Google, and a rather more fresh-faced version of yours truly (amongst others).

In a series about the extraordinary stories behind maps, Professor Jerry Brotton shows how maps can reveal the fears, obsessions and prejudices of their age.

Religious passion inspires beautiful medieval maps of the world, showing the way to heaven, the pilgrims’ route to Jerusalem and monstrous children who eat their parents. But by the Victorian era society is obsessed with race, poverty and disease. Royal cartographer James Wyld’s world map awards each country a mark from one to five, depending on how ‘civilised’ he deems each nation to be. And a map made to help Jewish immigrants in the East End inadvertently fuels anti-semitism.

‘Map wars’ break out in the 1970s when left-wing journalist Arno Peters claims that the world map shown in most atlases was a lie that short-changed the developing world. In Zurich, Brotton talks to Google Earth about the cutting edge of cartography and at Worldmapper he sees how social problems such as infant mortality and HIV are strikingly portrayed on computer-generated maps that bend the world out of shape and reflect the spirit of our age.

Available to watch on BBC iplayer for 6 more days: 

And my tip of the day: most UK universities provide access for free to BoB: Learning on Demand, which allows staff and students at subscribing institutions to record programmes from over 65 free-to-air channels, and search the archive of over 2 million broadcasts on TV and radio.

Linguistic colour in social cartography

I wrote a while back on how language has been used to describe the human condition in cities, citing Weber’s likening of the city as akin to ‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work’ as an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities.[1]

This is a recurring topic in my forthcoming book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography, where I write that no language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebel.’  This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well. In fact, as Gareth Stedman-Jones has written, poor districts had become by this time ‘an immense terra incognita periodically mapped out by intrepid missionaries and explorers who catered to an insatiable middle-class demand for travellers’ tales’.[2] Lurid newspaper articles on the East End used ‘slum stereotypes and other formulaic motifs’ to reinforce the colourful descriptions read by the masses, helped by the fact that most of their readers had never ventured into its streets.[3] On the other hand, sensational imagery used by those who visited the slums safely at a distance from their carriages was bolstered by more precise accounts from what might be termed as explorers, who roamed the streets on foot to get closer to the reality of life in and on the slum streets. These ranged from Henry Mayhew’s newspaper articles published between 1849 and 1850 (and collected in London Labour and the London Poor), through Charles Dickens on his Night Walks, whose accounts of ‘houselessness’ helped shift Victorian consciences regarding the plight of the poor.

Similarly, numerous accounts of nineteenth-century slums show the negative perceptions associated with clusters of ethnic minorities. I discovered some of the worst language in the texts associated with the maps drawn up to record the activities in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This sense of foreign intrusion was strengthened by styling Chinatown a ‘colony’. The term was widely used in American cities to characterise poverty districts as being foreign in their character. Looking at the 1885 map of San Francisco’s Chinatown of that time (the first to be called that) we can see a compelling example of visual as well as linguistic rhetoric being used for a political purpose – to raise public concerns about the supposedly invasive population. The map was drawn up to accompany a report by a committee that had been established by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to record ‘the Condition of the Chinese Quarter’, aiming to uncover the effects of Chinese immigration on the locality.

Official Map of Chinatown, San Francisco, 1885.
Image copyright Cartography Associates, 2000

The report, an inflammatory text titled ‘The Chinese at Home and Abroad’ had gambling and the taking of opium described vividly as a ‘twin problem’. The author did not hold back on his criticism. In a passage rife with racist language and replete with terms intended to emphasise his revulsion at the manner of living in the quarter, he writes,

‘The twin vices of gambling in its most defiant form, and the opium habit, they have not only firmly planted here for their own delectation and the gratification of the grosser passions, but they have succeeded in so spreading these vitiating evils as to have added thousands of proselytes to the practice of these vices from our own blood and race.’[4]

Indeed, Nayan Shah has written of the salacious ‘press coverage of public health inspections’ in which ‘reporters described the Chinatown labyrinth as hundreds of underground passageways connecting the filthy “cellars and cramped “garrets” where Chinese men lived.’[5] Thus, language is used to paint a picture of the ethnic minority as living in spatially segregated conditions, with eyewitness accounts casting the Chinese quarter as being comprised of ‘serpentine and subterranean passageways’. In a neat trick, the minority group is distanced, if not in reality, than at least in the mind, by being hidden away. Thus, both the clustering, and the spatial segregation of the Chinese inhabitants of the city were seen as a severe challenge to public order in much the same way that Booth’s policemen viewed parts of London a decade later (and with similarly intolerant language).

An opium den, Chinatown, San Francisco, California (c.1900s). The fact that such images were available for sale is an indication of the exoticisation of the Chinese population at the time. Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views

I end with another aspect of the use of language in social cartography, namely the way in which writers on the city used language to depict spatial segregation. One of the most interesting examples of this is  Frederic Thresher’s The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, published in 1927 (and still in print), which is full of the most intricate detail on the spatial nature of gang activity and the way in which disorderly behaviour takes place in the interstitial, marginal areas of the city, namely ‘the spaces that intervene between one thing and another’. In fact, an interesting game could be played spotting the many synonyms for segregated areas used in the course of the book. The wilderness, the slum, the colony and the terri­tory are found to nestle on the barriers, borders or frontiers of another gang’s area. These are typically in low elevation areas – valleys, gullies or canals – which are segmented by railroad tracks or highways; in some cases, they occur in a veritable wilderness or so-called blackspot.

The low areas of the city were shelters for crime and – as Dickens had it over half a century earlier –  crime and poverty intertwined in the worst corners of the city, with Nicholas Nickleby finding,

‘. . . pieces of unreclaimed land, with the withered vegetation of the original brick-field. No man thinks of walking in this desolate place, or of turning it to any account. A few hampers, half-a-dozen broken bottles, and such-like rubbish, may be thrown there, when the tenant first moves in, but nothing more; and there they remain until he goes away again: the damp straw taking just as long to moulder as it thinks proper: and mingling with the scanty box, and stunted everbrowns, and broken flower-pots, that are scattered mournfully about – a prey to “blacks” and dirt.’[6]


[1] Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.

[2] Stedman Jones, G. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. Oxford: Peregrine Penguin Edition, 1984, p. 14.

[3] G. Ginn, ‘Answering the “Bitter Cry”: Urban Description and Social Reform in the Late-Victorian East End,’ The London Journal 31, no. 2 (2006)

[4] Farwell, W.B. The Chinese at Home and Abroad Together with the Report of the Special Committee of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco on the Condition of the Chinese Quarter of That City. San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Co., 1885, p. 39.

[5] N. Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 29.

[6] Dickens, C. Nicholas Nickleby. University of Oxford Text Archive http:// text/ 3082. html. Accessed 24 May 2017.