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‘People Count’: A History of British Self-observations in Survey Research and Censuses in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Kerstin Brückweh

Societies, and particularly their political leaders, use various methods of self-observation. From the 19th century surveys became an important – possibly the most important – instrument for producing knowledge about the population. The census is the prototype for continuously observing society. It goes back a long way, but it is only in modern times that it has revealed more than just population figures. This applies, for example, to Britain where – with the exception of 1941 – a census has been taken every ten years since 1801, and market researchers now regard the British census as ‘the ultimate benchmark data source’. According to the social, political and economic context the questionnaires were changed for each census. So – while taking various other sources into account – this project considers questionnaires as a key source and asks about the underlying notions of society and individual: What ideas and notions of social order are revealed and how have they changed over the last two hundred years? Which topics were considered important for observing British society? By focussing on the various questions in censuses and surveys (e.g. religion, education, disabilities, ethnic origin) a social history of various countries can be written ‘from within’, that is, on the basis of a critical analysis of their self-descriptions and their patterns of order.

This project combines a history of knowledge with a new political history that is also inspired by a new history of ideas. Its aim is to deconstruct preconceptions and production processes of social “facts” by using censuses and surveys as an example, and it is thus particularly relevant to today’s society. For, as Jürgen Osterhammel formulated it as regards statistics: ‘Categories that emerged from the technical necessities of social statistics – classes, strata, castes, ethnic groups – became crucially powerful in administration and self-perception. Statistics were two-sided: on the one hand an instrument for description and sociological explanation, on the other a great stereotyping and labelling machine’. The project analyses this two-sided aspect of censuses and surveys.