A census is the process of obtaining information about every member of a population (not necessarily a human population). The term is mostly used in connection with national ‘population and housing censuses’ (to be taken every ten years according to United Nations recommendations); agriculture censuses (all agriculture units) and business censuses (all enterprises).
The census is a method used for accumulating statistical data, and plays a part in democracy (voting). Census data is also commonly used for research, business marketing, and planning purposes. It is widely recognized that censuses are vital for the planning of any society. However, for some the issue of right to privacy is involved. When a census asks detailed questions regarding sensitive matters, which have historically been used as the basis for discrimination, or the residents have questionable legal status, many will avoid answering. Thus, census information is never completely accurate. Nonetheless, it continues to be a vital tool for collecting demographic information and thus to assess the needs of the people, as well as the efficacy of social programs designed to safeguard and improve their welfare.
Censuses vary in the information they collect, but many items are standard. Most censuses follow common demographic information such as the age, income, area of residence, level of education, marital status, and occupation among others.
The census can be contrasted with sampling in which information is only obtained from a subset of a population. As such it is a method used for accumulating statistical data, and also plays a part in democracy (voting). Census data is also commonly used for research, business marketing, planning purposes and not at least as a base for sampling surveys.
It is widely recognized that population and housing censuses are vital for the planning of any society. Traditional censuses are however becoming more and more costly. A rule of thumb for census costs in developing countries have for a long time been one USD / enumerated person. More realistic figures today are around three USD. These approximates should be taken with great care since a various amount of activities can be included in different countries (for example, enumerators can either be hired or requested from civil servants). The cost in developed countries is far higher. The cost for the 2000 census in the US is estimated to 4.5 billion USD. Alternative possibilities to retrieve data are investigated. Nordic countries Denmark, Finland and Norway have for several years used administrative registers. Partial censuses ‘Micro censuses’ or ‘Sample censuses’ are practiced in France and Germany.
The first known census was taken by the Babylonians in 3800 B.C.E., nearly 6000 years ago. Records suggest that it was taken every six or seven years and counted the number of people and livestock, as well as quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables.
One of the earliest documented censuses was taken in 500-499 B.C.E. by the Persian Empire’s military for issuing land grants, and taxation purposes.
Censuses were conducted in the Mauryan Empire as described in Chanakya’s (c. 350-283 B.C.E.) Arthashastra, which prescribed the collection of population statistics as a measure of state policy for the purpose of taxation. It contains a detailed description of methods of conducting population, economic and agricultural censuses.
The Bible relates stories of several censuses. The Book of Numbers describes a divinely-mandated census that occurred when Moses led the Israelites from Egypt. A later census called by King David of Israel, referred to as the “numbering of the people,” incited divine retribution (for being militarily motivated or perhaps displaying lack of faith in God). A Roman census is also mentioned in one of the best-known passages of the Bible in the Gospel of Luke, describing the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph had gone there to be enumerated in a Roman census.
Rome conducted censuses to determine taxes. The word ‘census’ originates from ancient Rome, coming from the Latin word ‘censere’, meaning ‘estimate’. The Roman census was the most developed of any recorded in the ancient world and it played a crucial role in the administration of the Roman Empire. The Roman census was carried out every five years. It provided a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed.
The world’s oldest extant census data comes from China during the Han Dynasty. Taken in the fall of 2 C.E., it is considered by scholars to be quite accurate. At that time there were 59.6 million living in Han China, the world’s largest population. The second oldest preserved census is also from the Han, dating back to 140 C.E., when only a bit more than 48 million people were recorded. Mass migrations into what is today southern China are believed to be behind this massive demographic decline.
In the Middle Ages, the most famous census in Europe is the Domesday Book, undertaken in 1086 by William I of England so that he could properly tax the land he had recently conquered. In 1183, a census was taken of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, to ascertain the number of men and amount of money that could possibly be raised against an invasion by Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria.
A very interesting way to record census information was made in the Inca Empire in the Andean region from the fifteenth century until the Spaniards conquered their land. The Incas did not have any written language but recorded information collected during censuses and other numeric information as well as non-numeric data on quipus, strings from llama or alpaca hair or cotton cords with numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system.
- Amelie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East c. 3000–330 B.C.E. Vol 2 (London: Routledge, 1995), 695.
- H. Yoon, “An early Chinese idea of a dynamic environmental cycle,” GeoJournal 10(2) (1985): 211-212.
- Anderson, Margo. The American Census: A Social History. Yale University Press, 2000.
- Bielenstein, Hans. “Wang Mang, the restoration of the Han dynasty, and Later Han,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 1, Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank (eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, 223-90.
- Farley, Reynolds. The American People: Census 2000. Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2005.
- Kuhrt, Amelie. The Ancient Near East c. 3000–330 B.C.E. Vol 2. London: Routledge, 1995.
- Myers, Dowell. Analysis with Local Census Data: Portraits of Change. Academic Press, 1992.
- Rodriguez, Clara. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000.
- Szucs, Loretto. Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records. Ancestry Publishing, 2001.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 05.30.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.