Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The census form

The next census form will arrive in our inboxes in 2021, gathering a snapshot of life in the UK. Dr Patrick White charts its evolution and examines its significance.

After speculation that the 2011 UK Census may have been the last, it was announced in 2014 that a full census is likely to be conducted in 2021. The Office for National Statistics had proposed that the once-a-decade census could be replaced by sample-based annual surveys to provide more up-to-date information, but a House of Commons Select Committee instead recommended the administration of an online census in 2021.

One of the factors that prompted the consultation was cost. The 2011 Census cost about £480 million and online administration could save money in future. But the 2021 Census will still cost £625 million. So who benefits from it? And how is the information collected, used?

Census users are a wide and diverse group. As well as being used by researchers, census data are used by national and local governments, Parliament, public sector services and by business and industry. Their scope and coverage mean they are used to map change for decades after their collection.

Censuses were first taken in 3340 BCE in Egypt. The UK Census was first conducted in 1801 and has been repeated almost every decade since. Unsurprisingly, the questions asked have changed over time. But what can these changes tell us about how UK society has changed? Can what we ask, and how we answer, tell us about how we live?

In 2001 a question on religion was included in the UK Census for the first time. An international movement urged respondents to state their religion as “Jedi” and in that year over 390,000 (0.8%) people were counted as “Jedis”. While this could be seen as just a prank, it raises serious issues about both the status of religion in contemporary British society and also about the Government’s right to collect personal data. Some “Jedi” respondents claimed to be protesting against the question itself and others about the privileges granted on the basis of religious membership. Jedi responses could also be read as a comment on the importance of certain cultural forms in the 21st Century.

Data on ethnicity was collected for the first time in 1991, when eight main options were provided. This was expanded to 11 ethnic groupings in 2001(the first census in which respondents were given options for ‘mixed’ ethnicity) and again in 2011, to 13 categories.

Including new questions on ethnicity reflects a broader concern with diversity and inequalities and our increasing understanding of the importance of ethnic differences. The United States census has asked about ‘race’ since 1820, when ‘colored slaves’ were first counted in addition to ‘free white males’. Until 1990 US questions also required information on country of birth, parents’ country of birth and first language. Attempts to simplify these questions were resisted, and from the year 2000 respondents could record multiple racial backgrounds. In 2010, however, ‘Hispanic’ was reclassified as an ethnicity and could only be selected in addition to ‘race’.

Completing the census might seem like an innocuous, bureaucratic chore, but the information collected is extremely valuable and is used to make decisions that affect us all. The questions included – or left out – in the census can also tell us about what we consider important in contemporary society. But while the census form, and how we complete it, may change over time, the value of the data collected only increases.

Dr Patrick White

Research interests

  • Student decision-making in compulsory schooling
  • Teacher recruitment, retention and morale
  • Educational markets and segregation
  • Determinants of lifelong learning
  • Patterns of internet use
  • Participation in higher education.

Supervision interests

  • Interested in supervising postgraduate students in the area of educational participation and inequality
  • Especially interested in supervising studies using large-scale secondary data sources and mixed methods approaches
  • Patrick has particular expertise in the following areas:
  • Education and career choice
  • Further and higher education
  • Lifelong learning
  • Education, training and the labour market.

Contact details

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