What is profiling?

Psychologists, ethnographers, market researchers, coppers: correct me if I’ve got this wrong. I think profiling works like this. You start by watching the behaviour of lots of people (more likely a representative sample). From your laborious, systematic observations, you infer characteristics so that you can say, with some certainty, “this behaviour = this characteristic”.

Then you derive the simplest possible indicators for these characteristics and codify them so that anyone can apply them. This is analagous to the way untrained HR staff are able to use sophisticated psychometric tests – they follow the steps printed on the laminated card and the result is close enough to be useful.

The point of all this mucking around – again, feel free to correct me here – is to exclude the kind of assumptions that trip us up when we make unguided assessments. Profiling, when it’s working, helps us to identify the right person (for the job, for the prison sentence, for the training scheme, for the next place in The Big Brother House…) in spite of our own prejudices.

So profiling is not about pulling young Asians out of the queue at customs but about reading the behaviour and appearance of a stream of people against the hints on the laminated card and isolating those most likely to be planning the next nihilist infamy, the next glorious assent into heaven or the next bank job. In fact, if profiling does boil down to hassling brown people, it’s not working.