From negotiation to administration
The issue that my colleague Penny Harvey raises about categories and form-filling in her blog - Anomalous Categories: the 2011 census - points to more general issues about devices governments use to constitute their populations. In addition to being a statement on what categories count and what aspects of the life of a teenager matter to governing authorities, the census is also a device that calls on subjects to account for themselves and others. I mention this because of Harvey’s frustration at not being able to account for those aspects of the life of her teenage daughter that she deems interesting and important. Over the some two hundred year life of the UK census these are the very reasons that many groups have intervened in the making of both the questions and categories. While government’s ultimately decide on the questions and the classifications and categories that count, citizens have intervened by challenging given categories (e.g., reporting alternatives that don’t fit the given tick boxes) and by making claims for the addition of different classifications and categories. For example, in the 2001 censuses for England and Wales, the addition of a question on religion and Irish as an ethnic category were the result of extensive lobbying on the part of religious and Irish communities. For these reasons, the census is less a ‘snapshot’ of the nation than a negotiation of who we are.
But gay and lesbian groups have not been as successful in these negotiations. They have lobbied for years for the addition of a question on sexual orientation but to no avail. There are thus many more ‘anomalous’ persons constituted by the census. I recently wrote an online article about this and the editors added the subheading ‘social exclusion’ in relation to this point. Brilliant addition! As argued the Muslim Council of Britain, without a question on religion British Muslims would remain ‘statistically invisible.’
But returning to Harvey’s point about there not being a tick box for students who have not yet taken any exams I am reminded of another issue. One way government’s are seeking to address such anomalies and inaccuracies is by doing away with censuses and the 2011 census may be the last in the UK. Administrative databases are being developed as an alternative source of population statistics as they are deemed more accurate, detailed and up-to-date. And they are also deemed to be better at ‘capturing’ people that are often missed by questions or census enumeration (some three million people in 2001). For example, thinking again about Harvey’s daughter, there is National Pupil Database (NPD), which dates back to 2002, and joins up student exam results (e.g., GCSE and A-level attainment) with data on pupils compiled in the school census (name; age; address; ethnicity; special educational needs information; attendance data; and so on). The NPD is updated three times a year and is considered one of several databases that could be used to replace the decennial population census.
There is much more that could be said about the NPD and its capacity to track and manage up-to-date data on the student population. To be sure it likely contains errors and omissions and generates different anomalous persons. But, and this is my point, the data is collected, entered, checked and validated by individual school administrators and Department of Education bureaucrats. What they report and record about students are not negotiable and census taking is principally a bureaucratic practice involving the administrative exchange of data between government departments.