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Today every household in the UK is supposed to fill in a census form. I find this wildly exciting. Everyone else seems to be grumbling. Norway has a boring census which does not even include sending out forms anymore (all it cares about are housing statistics). The British one, according to Jimmy Carr on Thursday's 10 O'Clock Live, could only be more intrusive if it were administered anally. A couple of weeks ago David Mitchell (on the same programme -- it may be that these two links are only available in the UK) had a rant centered around the Lockheed Martin controversy. Yes, that Lockheed Martin. The evil arms manufacturer is now doing the job of civil servants. I don't know how it happened, and I am not sure I want to know. It is disturbing, somewhat absurd, terribly annoying and bad.

Here is one highlight from Mitchell's rant, regarding the controversy:

This has provoked outrage from easily outraged people, and they have called for a boycott of the census. Good call! Give Lockheed Martin less data to process for their money, and then they'll be sorry. They are going to have to go off and make an a-bomb to cheer themselves up. There is no better way to hurt a multi-million dollar arms manufacturer than by inconveniencing the social history PhD students of a hundred years' time.

Which is the problem, of course. It is annoying to contribute to Lockheed Martin in any way, but this is set up so that any attempt at sabotage hurts us more than it hurts them. David Mitchell then segues into a glorious rant on privatisation of things the state does quite well, but I will try to stay on topic (this is going to get long enough as it is). Lockheed Martin will apparently not actually have anything to do with the data collected, which is comforting. I am not quite sure what they are supposed to be doing, actually. Only that they get lots and lots of money for it (not a good thing).

Private Eye featured a lovely parody last week, in which the question on religious affiliation contained a clause that everyone ticking "Jedi" would be shot for wasting people's time.

My inner historian loves the census. The idea of contributing to statistics and being counted makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. History moves, takes note of us and continues. Having my existence registered is oddly comforting. Come to think of it, I suppose this is the feeling that drives some people to Big Brother.

First: could I just ask about the colour? Why, oh why? I have heard that hospital corridors are painted that colour because it keeps people calm. I am not sure that is true (it makes me feel slightly sick and depressed, possibly due to flashbacks to the early 90s), but even so: do people get terribly worked up about the census? Why would anyone want to print anything in that ghastly shade of green? To make matters worse, it looks like this horribleness is particular to me: the English one (from what I can tell) is purple. Purple is a nice and friendly colour regardless of shade. Tim and Rebekah's, I think, is a friendly blue. Red would also be nice. Or grey tones. I am not sure why I am singled out for feeling slightly nauseous while filling the thing in, but I am not happy about it. This for future reference, as I think it is too late to do anything about the current one.

The threat of a £1,000 fine also has me sweating a little. I am sure it is very useful in keeping people from boycotting it, if the allure of history is not enough, but my neurotic side is terrified that something will go wrong and they'll come after me and sell all my books to cover the fine.

Now, the census is not anonymous. I knew it would not be, but for some reason I expected it to be. Most other questionnaires I have filled out in my long career of happily obliging when Gallup-people phone us up, or the university sends out stuff to gage their ability to educate, there has always been at the very least a pretence at anonymity. Here I am expected to state my full name, address and date of birth. Now, having grown up in a country where the government feels it is easier to just keep tabs on you all the time (rather than once a decade) I have no major problem with this. But I can see how some people find it unsettling.

I cannot decide whether make a fuss about the easy dichotomy of sexes. It does not apply to me (squarely in the "female" box), but I have read enough theory to know that that the binary division is an oversimplification.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the alternatives are much more detailed when it comes to marital legal status:

Here, any number of shades of grey are represented. No simple married/not married. I wonder whether anyone has suggested that turning civil partnerships into marriages would save them a lot of ink on census forms. Perhaps I should write a letter to the Times. I believe that is the main avenue for public opinion?

Is it wrong that I am always happy when I do not have to skip questions in this sort of questionnaire? Perhaps it is related to the desire to be counted (wasn't there a children's book where a goat went around counting people, and the people didn't like it? I have never sympathised terribly with their plight). I am not sure that is the best reason to stay in full-time education, though.

I was going to quip about how they send out the census during term time, and then they ask about silly things like whether you live at the address you are at a the time during term. Then I realised I had the last tutorial with my students on Friday, and quite a few of them did not show because they had ordered early tickets home.

I then get to identify as a Foreigner. I am a little miffed that I cannot use Noregr, but it would never have occurred to me to do so if they had not specifically forbidden it. The major question I ask myself is whether that would be enough to trigger the £1,000 fine.

Let me also officially state for the record that questions about what I did 3 years ago are very frustrating. I feel quite strongly that forms are only fun as long as you can fill them out off the top of your head. History be damned.

The next question is also tricky.

I do spend a certain amount of time in the pub, in the library and in the English Department, all of which have a statistically significant number of very strange people. Still, I think I am going with "no". I do not want David Cameron to get any more "big society" ideas.

I have been marking a lot of undergrad essays lately.
This is not a point in the mental illness debate (though I am sure it could be); I am merely trying to offer context. When I mark these essays, one of the recommendations I keep making is to focus on structure: rather than skipping erratically from point to point, you should make sure you deal with one topic at the time, finish with it, and then move on. I therefore had horrible flashbacks (again) when encountering this question:

When I got the question on caring for mentally ill and/or old people, I assumed we were done with the housing questions. "Including a plan for your argument might help with this structural problem: it would make it easier for you to see whether you have organised the argument coherently, and it will also help your reader navigate the essay." Skipping back and forth like this does not seem sensible.

It flows somewhat better into the next couple of questions, however:

I was happy to find a box that suited my very erratic habit of studying variously at home, at the library and cafés in addition to teaching in two different locations at the university. I could probably have ticked the "mainly at home" box (I think if you break it down, I spend more time working from home than from any other single location), but that would mean foregoing answering question 12:

On foot! Yeah! Because, you see, aside from the obvious saving of the world thing, the main reward for being environmentally conscious and making sure one lives within walking distance from place of work (or otherwise taking the bus) is that one gets to proudly tick the box for "on foot" in these types of questionnaires.

Then, quite suddenly, there pops up a voluntary question. I wonder whether it is voluntary because of the Jedi debacle during the last census, or whether it was always voluntary. I find it interesting that this is the voluntary question (not the health ones, generally also regarded as something private; or the ethnicity one). Is there a danger of the CofE (or, I suppose CofS) rounding up the Catholics?

Anyway, I have no real problem ticking "no religion" (although not because the humanist society told me to). If they come for me, though, you will know why. Cake or death?

Perhaps they will let it slide when I point out that I am Norwegian again.

Although I will state that it is slightly annoying to only be allowed to tick one box when it tells you to tick ALL that apply. Perhaps some Scottishness has rubbed off on me? No. Not really.

The ethnic group question also surprised me. In part because it was there at all, in part because of the selection of choices. It is no longer "British/English/Scottish/Other". It is now "British/yadayada/Traveller/Polish/Other". Is this based on the most popular "others" from the last time around? I am intrigued.

Here are the full options, open to comments from the floor:

Now, I do not mean to be picky. I don't. But it took me a while before I understood the thinking behind phrasing the question as "Which of these can you do?", and I still have some issues with it (but they may be due to something along the lines of saying a word so many times it loses all meaning). Which is interesting in the context of a language question.

I was fairly certain I understood Scots before I started thinking about it. And then Tim showed me this page, which finally convinced me Scottish is incomprehensible. This is very annoying: being Norwegian I have always taken great pride in the ability to understand a variety of dialects. There should be an option for "I can understand Scots when they speak slowly, I have context and they know I do not speak it. Because I have never had actual trouble understanding people. It is all very annoying.

Tim suggested it might be a political ploy by the SNP (currently in power in Scotland), part of a nefarious plan to have Scots properly declared a separate language. If so, that is fine by me.

It is especially annoying that they do not have a sliding scale for this understanding, as they do for speaking English. Because I understand some of the dialects. Others are impenetrable.

You will be happy to know I resisted the temptation to tick "none of these". It is not as funny as it sounds. There is a provision for having someone else help you fill in the form. I considered the consequences of ticking this box and not filling out that I had had any help. Then I remembered history and the £1,000 fine.

As I said, I find the question on my health more intrusive than the question on religion.

I went to the census webpage and found that they have a function:

Data from the question on limiting long-term health problem or disability provides the only measure of disability in small areas and contributes to policy development in measuring healthy life expectancy. It is also used to allocate resources for care of the elderly.

So perhaps I should not complain.

Then came the education questions, making everything worse. I am sure I have mentioned my complete bafflement when it comes to the strange, strange world that is British education before. Looking at this, however, the question of the £1,000 fine came to mind again:

Thank heavens for the "I am a foreigner and have no idea what you are on about" option. It is very considerate of them.

I then spent some time pondering the precise nature of a PhD: am I "on a government sponsored training scheme"? "self-employed or freelance"? Certainly nothing involving any style of business.

I am sure the following questions should also trigger some sort of socio-economic commentary on the state of British jobs (and how the government is currently doing its utmost to make sure more people have to spend their weeks looking for jobs, and something on how it is fortunate for them that this census is held just before the redundancies really kick in), but I just don't have the energy. It all makes me profoundly tired. Thankfully I get to tick the happy boxes.

I am also wondering about the "other" in the following. It is a little like the type of IQ test where you are supposed to find the pattern in a series of apparently random things. This is why context is king, children.

I am also a little fascinated by the fact that some of the numbered boxes are just instruction boxes, not questions. Are they worried that people will skip reading them if they do not have a number?

There are thing that separate men from boys. If there is a gender-neutral census-equivalent, then I believe the attempt to fit a TA-position into the following is part of it. I assume all descriptions must consist of less than 51 letters including spaces. Are they in fact looking for a description, or would it be sufficient to simply state the job title? Who knows?

And don't get me started on the number of hours including paid and unpaid overtime. As I said, I have been marking essays recently. It is a very sore point. Could I also ask, just for the sake of elucidation, what a normal week is? I do not think I have had one yet.

I wonder what you have to do to get to be the one who sorts through these replies. It sounds like it could be entertaining.

I am sorry the questions are not more exciting.

On the whole I feel it petered out terribly towards the end. All that early excitement, and the final question does not have even a hint of panache. They could at least have tried to end on some dire note, or perhaps a random question of pure interest and no use value at all (like "what is your favourite flavour of ice cream?" or "which book would you read while sitting by the lake on a summer's eve?") -- statistics are all well and good, but I think there is something to be said for including the singular as well. Some sort of acknowledgement that there are individuals out there.



Tor,  27.03.11 19:06

I had sort of expected it to be more Big Brother-ish, along the lines of those parody questions from Private Eye. Are you, or have you ever been, part of a terrorist cell? That sort of thing.

Also, I find it incredibly fascinating that the Britons supposedly don't like the idea of the government keeping a list of where everyone live, like they do in Norway, while happily participating the census, paying taxes and doing other things which will inevitably lead to the government finding out where they live.


Kjellove,  30.03.11 00:18

Norway doesn't need a census anymore, since we have a functioning resident registration (including buildings). Since the last one ten years ago, the system is now automated.

That said, reading old census returns has been one of my favourite hobbies since the early 90s.


Tim,  01.04.11 23:57

I just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading this article. I was going to write some more specific comments a few days ago, but I didn't get round to it, and now I think they probably weren't worth writing in the first place. So. Nice article.
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