Who Are We, Who Were We? History Through The Census, Part 1

Last year, while building lesson ideas for my course on Race in America, I stumbled across a gold mine resource: the UN database of international censuses. I got lost in it; literally hours were spent examining the questions used by countries around the world (or, at least, those that published versions of their census in English). At first I looked specifically for questions that asked for racial, ethnic, or national identity; the result of that search was one of my favorite lessons, which I taught yesterday. But as I went on I started to look more broadly, at what we can learn about a country through the questions it asks its citizens. Poorer, more rural countries, for example, focus many of their questions on determining housing materials, water sources, and literacy levels. Countries with high levels of immigration often have a complicated series of questions on national and ethnic origin, language, or religion. More and more, countries ask about technology in the home (more common in the developed world). Each of these gives the reader a window into what the government of that country concerns itself with: what are its priorities, what does it perceive as its problems?

Rwandan Census

Similarly, the history of a country can become apparent in interesting ways through the questions it asks its citizens. This came home to me hard as I looked through the Rwandan census, and came to question P12. The question asks about a variety of disabilities, and their causes. All appears normal until you catch cause choices 4 (War/mines) and 5 (Genocide). The matter-of-fact inclusion of such a traumatic historical event is a good illustration of the importance of looking at the census as a historical document. This is not a secondary recounting of the genocide; it doesn’t describe the causes or results, honor the dead, blame the perpetrators. It is merely a piece of evidence that shows the modern cost: a population still scarred and hampered by the death that descended on Rwanda in 1994.


The Israeli Census offers another lesson on reading history through data collection. Israel has perhaps the most complicated version of the ‘identity’ question: a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure of identification.

14. What country were you born in according to the present borders? ___________

  • Those answering “Israel” – go to Question 16
  • Those answering “the former USSR” go to Question 15
  • All other foreign born respondents – go to Question 20

15. What country of the former USSR were you born in (according to the present borders)?  ___________________________
(go to Question 20)

16. What country was your father born in? _________________________

  • Those answering “the former USSR” – go to Question 17
  • The rest of the respondents – go to Question 18

17. What country of the former USSR was your father born in (according to the present borders)? _______________________

18. What country was your mother born in? __________________

  • Those answering “the former USSR” – go to Question 19
  • The rest of the respondents – go to Question 21

19. What country of the former USSR was your mother born in (according to the present borders)? ______________________________
(go to Question 21)

20. What year, month and day did you enter/immigrate to Israel? _____________

23. What is your grandfather’s name (on your father’s side)? ________________
(This question is directed only to the Arab and Bedouin population)

24. What is the name of your tribe? ______________________________
(This question is directed only to the Bedouin population)

25. What is your religion?
(This question will be directed only to those who have no Israeli Identity Certificate)

  • Jewish
  • Moslem
  • Christian
  • Druze
  • Other

Here we see a few things. The first is Israel’s recognition that the brunt of their population descends from recent (20th century) immigration. This is in part a legacy of the Holocaust, and in part a legacy of programs to bring diaspora Jews from around the world (especially those within what had been the USSR) into Israel. We can also see Israel struggling to understand the growing non-Jewish minority in the country: questions 23 and 24 each seek to categorize other ethnic groups within Israeli borders, while 25 – directed at non-citizens and those who lack direct recognition by the state – focuses on religion as a mode of identification; Israel, which feels its status as a Jewish state is threatened by growing non-Jewish populations, is clearly focused on that particular aspect of its respondents.

What a census doesn’t as is often as important as what it does. Japan’s census, for example, makes no reference to any differences of race or ethnicity; the only identity question listed asks whether the respondent is Japanese, or from a foreign country.


Of course, Japan is famously homogeneous from an ethnic standpoint, but the question covers the differences that do exist; for example, Japan’s Ainu or Okinawan populations, who have distinct ethnic and cultural identities, are not enumerated and can therefore more easily be ignored in terms of group needs and resources.

SimilarylFrance’s census famously doesn’t include questions focused on race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. This reflects a modern French insistence on “identity-blind” politics; the hope in France is that not acknowledging differences in identity will help forge a civic culture. Unfortunately, the result is a country that has no data on its inequality; while poor, predominantly Muslim immigrants are central to many important sociopolitical issues in France, the country cannot provide evidence on population differences in education, living situations, geography, or economic status because it doesn’t delineate in its census.

This post just skims the surface; these census forms reveal tons of other fascinating information (for example, Sudan’s most recent census, taken before South Sudanese independence, does not ask about ethnicity but instead simply regionality). I’d love to hear what other people take note of here. Later in the week, I’ll post Part 2, looking at the US census throughout history, and focused specifically on how we have defined and redefined race in the United States.


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