The census controversies are not over in Australia, but they have certainly cooled down. This is a better time to air a couple of questions that have largely remained outside the central debates revolving around this census round in general, and around the crisis of census day in particular. These questions should make us celebrate the fact that, at least for the time being, we continue to live in societies in which there is a public sector mediating our social life. Because a healthy public sector, warts and all, can always be oriented and made accountable by the citizenry. This is something that we tend to forget too easily, though it is a real treasure in a historical period in which social life is increasingly mediated by unaccountable private and corporate forces.
So let us recapitulate. The new census round brought together a motley crew of enemies of “big government”, defenders of civil rights and a number of inspired conspiracy theorists against the Australian Bureau of Statistics – often identified with the current government in a mechanical way, without nuance. Of course, different arguments were presented by those critiquing the census and its new methods, but there was generally a converging point among them: it was presented as a threat against individual freedom, with the census portrayed as a potential tool for unpredictable (but always negative) social control. Let us for a second leave aside the arguments about the way in which the current government may be using the data (but let us also recall that the current government might nor be there for too long). Let us at the same time assume that if the ABS had not gone through cuts in its funding, it would be better prepared to cope with its work. And let us then focus on the sense of entitlement with which the claims of the right to privacy were presented over the past few weeks of controversies. That sense of entitlement arguably stems from a notion of citizenship and democracy that, alas, is largely absent nowadays from most aspects of our everyday lives. It certainly does not have parallels in our lives as consumers, which is what we are when we are not citizens.
It is significant that, in a period in which personal data is captured and circulated in mass scale by private corporations and often through a-legal mechanisms, it was the national census, run by a state agency, that sparked such outrage. Is that not surprising? Why do some people find it inconceivable that a state agency manages certain personal data (even when there are regulations to protect a degree of anonymity), but at the same time many of these people are comfortably fine with private corporations capturing, storing and circulating far more of their personal data (and often with no clear consent granted by consumers)? Well, that is a bit of a mystery, and one that speaks about the world in which we live. And that is not really good news, because unless we become more aware of what is at stake in these matters, we may end up in a situation in which the control of data and the circulation of information by private corporations will translate in a dramatic involution for democracy, as experts are cogently denouncing.
So, after all, the census controversy around personal privacy has demonstrated what still remains so good about certain conceptions of citizen rights, whose mobilisation can become the source of reorientation for the activities of public organs.
The other good reason to celebrate the census controversies of the past few weeks is that they have given the census some of the public attention it deserves. After all, they are essential instruments for governance, providing indispensable data for the definition of public agendas and for the subsequent design and implementation of policy. Yet census designs are far less discussed than government budgets or parliamentary legislation. This is a bit of a mystery, even in these times of growing disaffection with institutional politics.
The reason why censuses largely remain outside the public spotlight is that they seem to be enveloped by an association of statistics and numbers with politically neutral objectivity.
However, while we should all credit existing technical expertise at the bureaus, we should also acknowledge that census-making is deeply enmeshed in broader political processes that shape them as political tools. And they are political tools not because the government uses them to make the population subject to obscure forms of control, but because they are spaces of social representation, crucial for the institutional shaping of national identities.
Among other things, censuses address the quantification of social identities (such as ethnicity, in Australia). And, against conventional wisdom, there is nothing straightforward about the measurement (and demarcation) of social identities.
First, it is always an ideological decision that will determine whether or not ethnic categories can be accepted as legitimate and realistic divisions of the national population. A comparative look at the history and present of national censuses demonstrates that such decisions change over time (and across nations) as a result of ideological transformations in our societies.
Second, if social identity categories such as ethnicity are accepted as a way to realistically portray social diversity, political decisions come again to the fore, articulated with technical considerations. The conceptualisation of ethnicity is subject to ongoing debates, far from resolved. And bureaus of statistics have to define and make the concept of ethnicity operational, designing a number of questions for interviewees and offering a number of example categories for them to ascribe to.
This is why census designs are political. The designs impact on society in practical terms, both through the ways in which it pre-informs public policy and through the acts of administrative recognition that imply the legitimisation, consolidation or even the creation of social categories that may condition citizen interaction.
The choice of terminology can decisively condition the results of social identity counts, as comparative research demonstrates. Census results can be significantly affected by social milieu too, for respondents are sensitive to political contexts and thus can feel more or less inclined to publicly embrace a particular social identity. In situations in which there is a perception of strong discrimination against one’s own group of ascription, self-identifications decrease. When there is a positive valorisation of a given social identity, the opposite is the case. Censuses can legitimise certain social identities, and they can also contribute to generating those identities.
In addition, the ‘example effects’ in census can have significant impacts on results. This is a technical term naming the demonstrated tendency of respondents to ascribe to categories that are already included in questionnaires as example categories.
And this relates to another crucial aspect of contemporary censuses: self-identification as the criteria used to identify social identities. This is a relatively recent mechanism in the history of censuses, replacing external identification (i.e. the process through which a census enumerator decided what was the social identity to which the interviewee was to be ascribed).
Self-identification overcomes undignifying census practices and avoids reification of identities. However, this does not preclude certain challenges, for it transforms mechanisms of group affiliation into individualised acts of subjective psychological choice, projecting a potentially evanescent character upon social identities.
All these questions have practical implications for political economy, and they are the questions that should generate civic discussion around censuses.