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Society, Politics & Law

The census: more than just a snapshot

Updated Friday 18th March 2011

The UK is home to a third of a million Jedi Knights. Dr Evelyn Ruppert explores how the last census discovered them - and how religion and nationality are treated by the survey

British Humanist Association advert Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Evelyn Ruppert

The British Library recently mounted an exhibit, Census and Society: Why Everyone Counts. It is an interesting display of information on the history of the census.  Most compelling are the examples of how people have contested the census for various political reasons.

For example, we learn about how the suffragettes in 1911 led a campaign to boycott the census in support of the movement for votes for women.  There is also a display concerning the inclusion of the voluntary question on religion in 2001 and how 390,000 British residents reported that they were Jedi knights.

What these examples alert us to is that people can, and have, intervened by challenging the conduct of the census, and the questions and categories that are included. While some people refuse or fail to send in returns (an estimated three million in 2001) or report alternatives that don’t fit the given tick boxes, others have collectively organised and intervened in census taking. The campaign leading to the reporting of Jedi Knights is but one example.

Social exclusion

The inclusion of a question on religion in 2001 followed many years of political lobbying on the part of faith communities who stressed the importance of religion as part of their identity. For some people such recognition was not only a question of official acknowledgment but also key to the allocation of government funding and equality rights. Indeed, the ONS states on the 2011 questionnaire that the data will be used to help develop and monitor policies, plan services and target resources, and assess and tackle discrimination and social exclusion associated with religion.
Over the years many groups have similarly lobbied for changes and made claims for the addition of different classifications and categories. After much negotiation, Irish as an ethnic category was first introduced in the 2001 censuses for England and Wales. For many years gay and lesbian groups have lobbied for the addition of a question on sexual orientation (which has not been successful in this round).

And groups have also lobbied for changes to how the questions are posed given that this can influence how people respond. This is what the British Humanist Association is arguing in its recently mounted advertising campaign against the religion question. The BHA says that the question - ‘What is your religion?’ - encourages a positive response. So while ‘no religion’ can be recorded the question will produce a ‘misleading picture of the religiousity of the UK’.


But what this and the other examples above illustrate, is that the census is a snapshot that is not so much a ‘reflection’ but a negotiation of who we are. It is a negotiation that comes out of struggles between bureaucrats, statisticians, user groups, and other interested parties over what questions and categories are going to count each time round. And it is also a struggle that affords an opportunity for groups to intervene in campaigns and for individuals to make choices about how they identify. As the questionnaire for England and Wales states ‘It is up to you to decide whether you have a religion’, ‘It is for you to choose your national identity or identities’ and ‘It is for you to choose your ethnic group.’

In these ways, the census is a singular and regularised event that engages people in answering questions about who they are and tells us who we think we are as a nation. Notwithstanding all of the issues about what and how questions are asked, it is an opportunity for people to participate and intervene in the making and writing of that narrative. 

So when we look back at the over 200 years of census taking we not only see population statistics. We also see the results of those negotiations, interventions and what questions and categories have triumphed over others. It is as much a record of numbers as it is of political contestation over questions of identity.


At the finish of the British Library exhibit there is a display that asks, ‘Will there still be a census in 2021?’  What the exhibit is referring to are proposals to replace censuses with centralised population registers and/or government administrative databases. There are lots of arguments about the advantages of these alternatives such as cost and timeliness. And according to a November 2009 survey conducted by the ONS two-thirds of people in England and Wales are in favour of data sharing between government departments and the creation of a single central database of basic personal information.

But what these arguments do not address is that we would lose the opportunity to individually and collectively intervene and choose how we are identified. Government databases report what people do in relation to government rather than what they choose to say about themselves. Who we are is not negotiable. If this is indeed the last census then what we will lose is an opportunity to intervene and say who we think we are.

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