Alternative census: Questions you need to answer

02:44, Feb 24 2013
An average Kiwi: Statisticians lovingly caress the census figures to tell us exactly who we are. 

Are you totally blind? Are you deaf and dumb? Are you, not that I wish to pry, an imbecile?

Pardon my language. I've just been reading the 1916 census form, written at a time when the vocabulary of infirmity was rather more blunt.

The language of race was scarcely better. Take the 1906 census form, which advises: "If any are HALF-CASTES write after the Name of each such Person the letter H." And: "Chinese are to be set down as never married, unless they have or have had Wives in Australasia."

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In 1906 Maori weren't even to be counted, because a separate "Census of Natives" was undertaken the same year - though exception was made for "Maori women who are married to living Europeans". Predictably, such women's names were to be denoted with the letters "M W".

In nine days we have our own modern and shiny census forms to complete, and you can even do it online. Although words like "feeble-minded" and "negro" have been expelled, the core questions remain the same: What's your name? Where do you live? Where are you from? What do you do?


The fascinating part, though, is tracking the questions that have disappeared entirely, and seeing what's replaced them.

New Zealand's first (European-only) census was taken in 1851. I've been browsing digital archives of censuses on the Statistics New Zealand website, which go back to 1906, and there's a rich, if fragmentary, story lurking in the dry questions the bureaucrats chose.

Things that seemed terribly important become irrelevant. 1906 was the last year that asked if children attended Sunday school. Questions about the number of servants you had were gone by the turn of the century. (It could be worse - the United States census used to ask landowners to count their slaves, but when it came to tallying up, slaves were counted as being three-fifths of a free man.)

Until 1921, New Zealand's census enquired about the household's honey production, and whether their hives contained "Black", "Hybrid" or "Italian" bees. Probing questions about the number, sex and age of your chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys lingered till 1971. Given how trendy the backyard hen has recently become, perhaps it's time to resurrect that one.

Hit mid-century, and you can almost smell the white heat of progress, as each census counts an additional must-have technology.

Do you have electric light (1945)? Do you have a washing machine or a fridge (1956)? A radio, vacuum cleaner or telephone (1966)? A deep freeze or a clothes dryer or a motorised lawn mower (1971)?

As the hippyish, oil-shocked 1970s arrived, technomania subsided and devices started falling off the question list again - by 1986 we no longer cared about any of those listed above.

Some arrivals and departures are mysterious - why did we want to know about home vege gardens in 1956 and in 1971, but at no other time?

Carol Slappendale, general manager of this year's census, says Statistics New Zealand gets requests for questions to be added or changed, but "there has to be a real and significant need for the information".

The biggest recent change was in 2006, with new questions about same-sex relationships - a direct response to the advent of civil unions in 2004. One likely addition on the horizon is questions about multiple residences, letting us measure people who commute between cities, and children who live with two separated parents.

The most frequent requests Stats NZ gets are from small groups who want a checkbox of their own on the lists of religion or ethnicity.

"They ask, ‘why doesn't my denomination have a tickbox'?" says Slappendale.

Of course, if you want to be a prat and make up a silly religion, you don't even need a checkbox, as there's a space to write what you like. In 2006, around 20,000 New Zealanders put their religion as "Jedi".

Serious statisticians got very grumpy at the success of a 2006 campaign that urged people to write in "New Zealander" as their ethnic group. The resulting surge of confused patriotism created a chunk of amorphous data that would otherwise have contained useful detail about ethnicity. Slappendale says without such a campaign this year, they're expecting only small numbers of "New Zealander" write-ins, and their precious data will be back on track.

By international standards, though New Zealand censuses are pretty straightforward. Until recently Turkey had a deeply unpopular 14-hour nationwide curfew on census day to make sure no one got counted twice. In war-torn Afghanistan, they've just started a census that's going to take six years to complete, and racial tensions are so high there are no questions at all about languages spoken or ethnic background. The Afghan census does, however, ask about how many chickens there are in the household, which is, somehow, rather comforting.

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Sunday Star Times