Wednesday, 17th October 2012
UK: The Census and social science
Source: House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (UK)
We undertook an inquiry into the proposed changes to the census not to consider whether there should or should not be another census but to consider the use of the data from the census by the Government, whether there were elements of the census that would be irreplaceable by other means and if the business of Government would be seriously impacted if census data was lost or changed....
We found that there were many other social science surveys that would appear to overlap with the census. We were informed that these surveys could not replace the census and indeed depended on census data as a source of calibration. This dependence would appear to be due to the fact that there is no other survey that can approach the breadth of the census. We did hear of good use being made of non-census surveys to provide equivalent data in a number of areas in a much shorter timescale than can be achieved through the use of a decadal census.
There are a number of other key qualities of the census could not be replaced by other means. Census data provides a snapshot of the whole country at a moment in time which is invaluable to historians and to detect trends in the recent past; it also allows comparisons to be made of different areas in the country more accurately. The census also provides a means to recruit to longitudinal studies which, we are convinced, are the envy of social scientists in other countries. A wide variety of organisations and local historians told us that they depend on the availability of census data as they could not afford to finance any equivalent studies.
The key disadvantages of the census would seem to be the timeliness of the data. Census data is always at least two years out of date and up to twelve years just prior to a census day. In areas where the population changes rapidly census data would rapidly become non- representational. There is also a concern that the very presence of such an obvious dataset means that new and innovative solutions are not sought for social science as they can lean on census data whether or not it is the best solution.
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By Adrian Janes
Having begun his career in academic libraries, Adrian Janes is currently an Information Services Librarian with the London Borough of Havering.
In this role, he has particular responsibility for information from both the UK Government and the European Union. He wrote a detailed report on sources for the latter which was published by Free Pint Ltd. in 2007. He is also involved in training and publicising online reference resources and is a regular contributor to DocuTicker.
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