International Debate

Summary: Social Science and the Census

December 14, 2011 2071

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee met with prominent UK social scientists last week to discuss the potential impact of ending the Census on research. The UK Census has been taken, in some form, every ten years since 1801 (with the exception of 1941). Its continuation is currently under review, largely due to the expense it requires to implement.

Witnesses to the meeting were Professor David Blane of the ESRC International Centre for Life Course Studies, Professor Heather Joshi, President of the Society for Lifecourse and Longitudinal Studies, and Professor Les Mayhew of City University.

All three professors agreed that the Census was a limited tool, particularly due to the ten year distance between each data set. For many purposes, this renders the picture of the UK population out-of-date, often before it is even published.  Professor Mayhew considered this a particularly insurmountable weakness, and argued that better data can be gleaned from administrative sources collected during everyday interactions between citizens and the government or businesses. He further argued that ending the Census would encourage researchers to become more “creative” in how they collected their data, which he believed would lead to greater efficiency and accuracy. Professor Mayhew, however, did not offer suggestions as to where the funding for these creative new studies may come from, or how quickly they might be cleared through ethical review.

Professor Joshi and Professor Blane both argued that one of the best opportunities the Census offers to social scientists actually lies within the long-term view created by the ten year gap between collections.  Professor Blane pointed out that the “Census is unique, with most countries no longer having it,” and argued that “one area where Britain remains the envy of the world is in the richness of its longitudinal data sets,” which includes the Census. Professor Joshi added that the Census gives a particular type of information which is otherwise difficult to collect. She told the committee that the Census is a “very important source for knowing how the population is not only distributing itself residentially, but how it’s moving between different sorts of households.”

It is not a surprise that the Census would be particularly important for social scientists that specialize in longitudinal research. However, Professor Blane best articulated the importance of the Census to social science in general when he explained “what the Census gives us is a secure block every ten years and it is that which situates all the [other] data.” What was particularly important for MPs to understand is that social science does not aim to create a single, perfect data set, but rather requires the depth of data only provided through multiple studies. When considering the discontinuation of the Census, Parliament should understand that the loss of any single source of data would likely be a detriment to many social science fields.

Watch the full meeting here

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