Exploration of census's impact on society more than just a number crunch
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/04/2020 (898 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Andrew Whitby, a transplanted Australian now living in the United States, has written a fascinating history of the census, just in time for the launch of the 2020 U.S. census and a year prior to the 2021 Canadian census. Along with his international perspective, as both an economist and computer scientist, The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, From the Ancient World to the Modern Age brings together a historical, technical and sociological understanding of the census in both ancient and moderns times.
The American Constitution of 1787 established the first modern decennial (i.e. once a decade) census in Article 1, where it refers to establishing an “Enumeration” to be conducted of “the whole Number of free Persons.” Going forward, and as the population changed, the census would determine each state’s proportionate size within the House of Representatives. The calculation excluded “Indians not taxed” while slaves would be worth “three fifths” of other individuals when doing the count.
Whitby writes that Sweden and the U.S. were the only countries conducting a decennial count in the 18th century, with the U.K. soon to follow. In what would later become Canada, a very early census was conducted in New France in 1666. Not mentioned by the author are the pre-Confederation censuses in the colonies such as those of 1851-52 and 1860-61 in the United Province of Canada.
For those seeking detailed information about the early days of the Canadian census, Bruce Curtis’ 2001 book The Politics of Population provides a reliable account of the period spanning the 1840s to the 1870s. Another decent and well-received work is David Worton’s 1998 work The History of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, which includes chapters on this period as well as up to the early 1970s.
Whitby’s most fascinating chapter is focused on the historical development of punch cards and data processing in the late 1800s. The “Electric Tabulating Machine” designed by Herman Hollerith was first adopted for the 1890 U.S. census. The machine enabled a single operator to “count fifty thousand people a day.” Not mentioned is that the Canadian government also used the machine, as a test case, for its 1891 national census. Hollerith later sold his firm in 1911, and after merging with three other firms, the new company name became the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In 1924 it was renamed International Business Machines — better known as IBM.
The Sum of the People examines the topic of not only who is counted in a national census, but who gets left out, remaining uncounted. This includes population counts in South Africa prior the end of apartheid, Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Australia (and, not mentioned, in Canada as well) and transient populations with no fixed address. To compensate, statisticians often resort to creating population “estimates” for these hard-to-reach populations.
A fascinating part of Whitby’s work is how, historically, the census is more than a simple counting of heads. As a government tool, it was used to collect taxes in biblical times, for establishing sovereignty in disputed parts of a region (such as modern-day Israel) and, most chillingly, by the Nazis to identify the Jews in occupied Europe.
Andrew Whitby’s Sum of the People is a highly readable, well-written account of how nations have implemented their census. Writing about the census might seem to be somewhat dull at first glance, but readers will soon appreciate how the topic is significant for a number of historical, social and political reasons.
Christopher Adams is writing a history of polling in Canada. He is a past pollster and is the rector of St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba.