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A census is a periodic, systematic enumeration of a population. Census-taking activities that counted at least certain segments of the population, such as those expected to be available for military service or to pay taxes, have been documented from ancient times. Modern censuses, broader in scope and content, are taken in many countries and gather statistical data that are used for myriad purposes.
Population counts were made in ancient Babylonia, Egypt, China, and India, some before 2000 or even 3000 BCE. Enumerations occurred in ancient Greece, and a comprehensive census was taken by the ancient Romans. Accounts of enumeration activities, largely to determine numbers of men available for military purposes, are included in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Roman census is central to the nativity story; it is said to be occurring at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, necessitating that people travel to be properly counted and taxed.
During the Middle Ages, censuses occurred periodically, including those in Japan, France, and Italy. The Domesday Book, compiled during the eleventh century for economic purposes under King William I (c. 1028–1087), provided a detailed “description of England.” Later enumerations occurred after the plague swept through the population. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, census efforts were undertaken in various countries around the globe. The first census in North America was conducted in 1666 in New France (Canada). Censuses were taken in Virginia and in most of the British territories before the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Censuses are now routine in nations worldwide.
The U.S. decennial census, first taken in 1790, is the longest-running periodic census. It is required by Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution for the primary purpose of reapportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives (i.e., determining the number of seats to which each state is entitled). Census data are also used in redistricting, the redrawing of political districts after reapportionment. More than five hundred other uses of census data have been mandated by federal laws.
Modern census data have numerous government, demographic, social, and economic uses. These uses include marketing research, strategic and capital planning, community advocacy, funding and resource allocation, and disaster relief. Census data are also widely used in academic, government, and genealogical research. Australian census data were even used to connect cases of maternal rubella (German measles) during pregnancy with deafness in children.
Census use, language, and content, however, have controversial implications. Censuses routinely track and quantify diversity by examining social demographics such as race and ethnicity, age, sex, class, disabilities, living arrangements, and family composition. Census “head of household” designations have been challenged as reflecting and perpetuating patriarchal patterns of power and authority implied in such terminology. Racial and ethnicity categorizations have proven contentious and continue to evolve, as do social constructions of those concepts. The analysis of same-sex couples has received increasing attention as well. When the 2001 census in England and Wales added a question on religion, 390,000 respondents recorded “Jedi” (the belief system featured in the popular Star Wars science fiction movies) as their religious preference, having been urged to do so by an Internet campaign. The campaign apparently had the unintended positive effect of encouraging people in their late teens and early twenties to complete their census forms. No census manages to count every member of the population. Certain categories of people, such as immigrants and the homeless, are the most likely to be missed and, therefore, undercounted and potentially underserved.
Some censuses, such as colonial censuses in Africa, have also raised concerns regarding motive, and some censuses have even involved human rights abuses of vulnerable subpopulations, such as the forced migrations of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. These abuses have been particularly evident during times of war. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. census data was used by the War Department (now the Department of Defense) in the identification and relocation of Japanese Americans to detention camps. Census data from Germany and occupied regions was central to furthering Nazi interests before and during World War II (1939–1945). It was used in propaganda, in the identification of Aryans and non-Aryans, in the extermination of Jews and others, and in advancing the regime’s military goals.
The United Nations Statistics Division, through the World Population and Housing Census Program, has been active in supporting national census-taking worldwide, including the development of census methodology, the provision of technical assistance in conducting censuses, and the dissemination of census data. As census technology, techniques, procedures, research, and guidance become increasingly refined, awareness of various issues is heightened and they can be better addressed.
- Alterman, Hyman. 1969. Counting People: The Census in History. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
- Aly, Götz, and Karl Heinz Roth. 2004. The Nazi Census: Identification and Control in the Third Reich. Trans. Edwin Black and Assenka Oksiloff. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- FPS Economy: Directorate-General, Statistics and Economic Information. 2007. Census in the World. http://statbel.fgov.be/census/links_en.asp.
- Lancaster, Henry O. 1951. Deafness as an Epidemic Disease in Australia. British Medical Journal 2: 1429–1432.
- Lavin, Michael R. 1996. Understanding the Census: A Guide for Marketers, Planners, Grant Writers, and Other Data Users. Kenmore, NY: Epoch.
- National Statistics in the United Kingdom. 2003. 390,000 Jedis There Are: But Did Hoax Campaign Boost Response in Teens and 20s? http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget. asp?id=297.
- Rodriguez, Clara E. 2000. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press.
- Seltzer, William. 2005. On the Use of Population Data Systems to Target Vulnerable Population Subgroups for Human Rights Abuses. Coyuntura Social 32: 31–44. http://www.uwm.edu/~margo/govstat/CoyunturaSocialpaper 2005.pdf.
- Seltzer, William, and Margo Anderson. 2000. After Pearl Harbor: The Proper Use of Population Data in Time of War. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Los Angeles, March 2000. http://www.amstat.org/about/statisticians/index.cfm?fuseactio n=paperinfo&PaperID=1.
- United Nations Statistics Division. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/ default.htm.
- S. Bureau of the Census. 1990. Federal Legislative Use of Decennial Census Data. 1990 Census Population and Housing Content Determination Report, CDR–14. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- S. Bureau of the Census. 2002. How the People Use the Census. http://www.census.gov/dmd/www/dropin4.htm. U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2007. http://www.census.gov.
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