Photo showing online census screen GB 2021

With the census in England & Wales recently completed and having generated a number of controversies in its development and execution, it is worth bearing in mind that such debate and dispute is nothing new, nor is it confined to Britain. Typically, controversy has focused either on the accuracy of the data collected or on the nature of the questions asked – and these two are themselves related.

The Archive contains, as one might expect, a plethora of writing about government censuses. An interesting 2016 article from an Australian perspective notes the commonly held view that survey accuracy is all about sample size and discusses the biases that may be present even with a 96% response rate. “While it appears that only four per cent have not responded to Census 2016”, writes Stephen Holden, “could the non-respondents differ from those who have responded? Failing to get responses from a small, distinctly different segment can have a significant impact.”

Controversy about the nature of the questions asked is often related to a growing concern about data privacy, and clearly extends beyond the census to other forms of market and social research. A 1976 article in the Journal of the Market Research Society refers to “the outburst of public concern about the gathering of information on individuals which was provoked by the 1971 Census”, and notes the belief of many research agencies that concerns about privacy were making the job of interviewers increasingly difficult.

The article goes on to discuss ethnic origin, which was only obliquely tackled by the 1971 census through a question on country of birth. All of this is in an article not about privacy as such, but about response rates – and hence links back to the issue of accuracy and non-response.

The e-Book ‘Post-War Developments in Market Research’, recently published by AMSR and based on data in the Archive, includes an article on Governmental Research by Paddy Costigan. He notes that “government surveys now routinely carry questions on matters such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability”, as does the latest census. It is hard to know what either the organisers of the 1971 census, or indeed the public, might have made of such questions.

Others again have examined the potential to use census data for marketing purposes. Richard Webber, in an unidentified press cutting from approximately 1991, writes that “If fast food outlets want to find their best prospects, they can do a lot worse than identify areas which have a high proportion of households sharing access to a bath.” This category, he writes, is closely correlated with young, single people in multi-occupied houses who do cannot or do not cook. Such correlations often lead to interesting data surrogates that can be used for geodemographic marketing.

Contributed by Nick Tanner
Date posted: 29th April 2021

2021 Census image credit: Ascannio –


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