Tag Archives: population

What is the point of the UK census?

By Helen Pallett

Suffragettes boycotting the 1911 census in Manchester
Image credit: Johnny Cyprus

Over the last few days it has become evident that the British government is questioning the worth of its financial and administrative commitment to conducting a compulsory decadal census of the whole population. It was announced that the Office of National Statistics has initiated a government consultation about the future of the census, comparing it to alternatives such as using an online survey or efforts to collate data already held by government. In the era of ‘big data’ and increasingly sophisticated databases and forms of data collection is there still a role for this 212 year old institution? What would the loss of the census mean for research in areas such as epidemiology and human geography, or for future historians?

One of the main concerns with the UK census seems to be its cost, with the 2011 census costing the Government a reported £480 million. Furthermore, concerns have been raised about the quality and usefulness of census data, as compared to data compiled more regularly for administrative purposes. Another common argument against the census is that it requires citizens to answer unreasonably intimate and personal questions, for example concerning religion and marital status, which might even count as an infringement of human rights.

Some researchers as well as bodies like the conservative think tank Policy Exchange have claimed that the use of currently collected administrative data as an alternative to the decadal census would provide the same quality of information at the fraction of the cost. However others, such as the economic geographer Danny Dorling, have argued strongly that the census is the only reliable source of important statistics such as mortality rates and population increase or decrease. For example, the 2011 census revealed that there were half a million more people living in England and Wales than had been assumed in official estimates – this is not an insubstantial figure, especially considering the importance of some of the policy decisions made on the basis of these statistics.

And this is not the first intervention that Danny Dorling has made in the debate about the merits of the UK census. Almost a decade ago Dorling and fellow economic geographer Paul Boyle wrote a guest editorial in the journal Area introducing a series of papers which used the 2001 census data. Boyle and Dorling ask whether the census is “a remarkable resource or bygone legacy of the ‘pencil and paper’ era?” and end up arguing emphatically for the continuing importance and usefulness of the census. They point out that freely available census data is utilised (though often without acknowledgement) for a wide-range of academic and non-academic uses, from epidemiological studies to historical accounts of important figures, to informing market research and infrastructure planning.

As Boyle and Dorling point out, one of the things that makes census data unique is its longitudinal range. A census has been conducted in the UK every decade since 1801 (with the exception of 1941 during World War Two), with some of the questions unchanged. This gives us the opportunity to follow the major changes in UK population and society. The census is also the only time when a data set is collected nationally but also provides a detailed picture of the local level. This kind of information is invaluable for resource allocation by highlighting the different needs of localities and giving information about local migration patterns.

Historically the creation of the census was tightly bound up with state acknowledging its responsibility to know about (and implicitly, to act on) the economic and cultural situation of its people. In several cases the census has even been involved in revealing the extent of major social problems and ringing the alarm bells. For example, Dorling has highlighted how the 1971 census prompted government action  by showing for the first time how many families were living without hot water. Consequently, freely available statistics from the census have often been an important resource for campaigners trying to improve living conditions or deal with other social problems.

Some of the media coverage of the census debate has also highlighted the needs and interests of imagined future researchers, or even perhaps historical geographers. Following census data helps to identify major societal landmarks, such as the census in 1851 which was the first to record more of the population living in urban areas that rural ones. The census also makes it possible to chart the changing occupations and living standards and individuals, whether they are important figures from history or a long lost member of your family. Even changes in the way censuses have been conducted and the questions which have been asked over the years are very revealing of key changes in society over time and give us an indication of which issues were of concern and interest to administrators at the time.

If the 2021 census goes ahead what will it tell us about changes in our society? And what invaluable information about our living conditions, population and eccentricities will it provide to future researchers?

books_icon Paul Boyle and Danny Dorling, 2004 Guest editorial: the 2001 UK census: a remarkable resource or bygone legacy of the ‘pencil and paper’ era? Area 36 101-110

60-world2 Ending the national census would make us blind to our society The Guardian, 2 September 2013

60-world2 Loss of census seen as threat to UK historical insight The Financial Times, 1 September 2013

60-world2 Researchers in UK count the cost of plan to scrap census The Financial Times, 1 September 2013

60-world2 Census consultation has option to replace 200-year-old survey BBC News, 3 September 2013

Content Alert: New Articles (11th May 2012)

The following Early View articles are now available on Wiley Online Library.

Original Articles

Migration, urban growth and commuting distance in Toronto’s commuter shed
Jeffrey J Axisa, K Bruce Newbold and Darren M Scott
Article first published online: 8 MAY 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01097.x

Original Articles

Mobile ‘green’ design knowledge: institutions, bricolage and the relational production of embedded sustainable building designs
James Faulconbridge
Article first published online: 27 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00523.x

Creating and destroying diaspora strategies: New Zealand’s emigration policies re-examined
Alan Gamlen
Article first published online: 27 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00522.x

The demographic impacts of the Irish famine: towards a greater geographical understanding
A Stewart Fotheringham, Mary H Kelly and Martin Charlton
Article first published online: 27 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00517.x

Transnational religious networks: sexuality and the changing power geometries of the Anglican Communion
Gill Valentine, Robert M Vanderbeck, Joanna Sadgrove, Johan Andersson and Kevin Ward
Article first published online: 25 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00507.x

Geographies of transition and the separation of lower and higher attaining pupils in the move from primary to secondary school in London
Richard Harris
Article first published online: 23 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.519.x

Rethinking governance and value in commodity chains through global recycling networks
Mike Crang, Alex Hughes, Nicky Gregson, Lucy Norris and Farid Ahamed
Article first published online: 23 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00515.x

The ‘missing middle’: class and urban governance in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies
Charlotte Lemanski and Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal
Article first published online: 20 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00514.x

Science, scientific instruments and questions of method in nineteenth-century British geography
Charles W J Withers
Article first published online: 20 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00513.x

Genome geographies: mapping national ancestry and diversity in human population genetics
Catherine Nash
Article first published online: 18 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00512.x

Militant tropicality: war, revolution and the reconfiguration of ‘the tropics’c.1940–c.1975
Daniel Clayton
Article first published online: 18 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00510.x

Beginners and equals: political subjectivity in Arendt and Rancière
Mustafa Dikeç
Article first published online: 13 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00508.x

Scaling up by law? Canadian labour law, the nation-state and the case of the British Columbia Health Employees Union
Tod D Rutherford
Article first published online: 13 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00506.x

7 Billion, Climate Change & ‘Managing Trade-Offs’

Sarah Mills

According to forecasts, the seven billionth person will be born today.  Thomas Lovejoy uses this moment, in his article in The Guardian, as a way into discussing a sensitive topic related to stemming population growth in response to climate change.  He states that “The idea of living sustainably, of “going green”, has recently become a buzzword when talking about everything from energy to water to agriculture…. But in terms of our own numbers, we are anything but sustainable.”.  He points out the need for integrated solutions from governments, business and advocates, but continues that “doing any of that without also making efforts to slow population growth makes an uphill climb even more difficult.”  He admits “It’s unpopular to apply sustainability to the concept of population growth, as the word “population” evokes worries about state control and limits on reproductive freedom. But slower population growth can not only lessen vulnerability to climate change impacts, it also has the potential to significantly reduce future greenhouse gas emissions”.

What this debate highlights, amongst other things, is what geographer Jon Anderson has recently noted as “a growing trend to cast the individual as the source and solution to many contemporary environmental problems.”  In his article currently on earlyview in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Anderson argues that in ‘becoming green’, individuals “have to negotiate a range of trade-offs between their environmental aspirations and the realities of life in a developed, consumer-based society”.  Whilst he explores the specific space and identities related to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, UK, this article considers the ways in which tensions around environmental beliefs, practice and lifestyles have led to a ‘politics of pragmatism’.  Although Anderson’s paper is not centred on population growth, it does reflect on the individualisation of environmental challenges, notions of responsibility and tensions around ‘becoming green’ – issues that are being discussed on comments to Lovejoy’s article today…

 Read J. Anderson (2011) Managing trade-offs in ‘ecotopia’: becoming green at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers [currently earlyview]

 Read T. Lovejoy (2011) Stemming population growth is a cheap way to limit climate change, The Guardian 31st October 2011

People, Paper, and Computers: Population GIS

GIS topographical elevation model. GIS also holds exciting opportunities for visualising population. (c) Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

Advanced geographic study and analysis increasingly requires expertise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS training can take on varied forms, from rudimentary interactions with Google Earth to manipulating vector and layered data in ArcGIS. The gradual acceptance of GIS as an integral tool in studying geography lies in fact that its original, military-state purpose has since been constantly tweaked, expanded, and applied in new and exciting ways.

Population analysis is undoubtedly one of GIS’ most important current applications. Historically, maps were coloured or marked by hand or paper printer, utilising data that was, more often than not, out-of-date by the time the chart (or atlas) was published. GIS completely changes this paradigm. Map data on migration, health, commercial and social distribution, and immigration, just to name a few, can be instantly updated. Increasingly, this can be accomplished remotely, using a network of pocket GPS systems, mobile computer hardware, and satellite communications. In his recent Geography Compass article, David Martin (University of Southampton) not only chronicles the development of GIS population analysis, but also posits future possibilities, and the problems and solutions they may pose.

Population data is one of the oldest and most prominent factors in surveying and cartography. Most domestic and national surveys were commissioned through the need for updated population census data; indeed, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern a municipality without such information. For instance, in a September 2002 Area article, Peter Collier and Rob Inkpen (both University of Portsmouth) highlighted the Colonial Office’s requests for population surveys necessary for ‘the efficient administration of new colonies’ in the nineteenth- and twentieth century British empires (277). Martin brings us forward into the twenty-first century, discussing both GIS’ transformative advantages, as well as the sluggishness (or, more exactly, lack of creativity) in its adoption. The traditional chloropleth (shaded area) map, he notes, still predominates GIS-produced population charts (655). Too, although some countries (e.g., the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada) maintain comprehensive geographic and population statistics (657-59), many other countries have only begun to adopt GIS toolkits.

These issues appear, however, to be nothing more than temporary obstacles in GIS proliferation. Martin highlights the ‘Population 24/7’ project, funded by the British Economic and Social Research Council, as a progressive programme intended to provide fluid, constantly-updated information on population issues that matter most to local councils, constabularies, hospitals, and community groups. His article serves as a superb addition to a growing body of scholarly GIS literature.

Peter Collier and Rob Inkpen, ‘The RGS, Exploration and Empire and the Contested Nature of Surveying‘, Area 34.3 (September, 2002): 273-83.

David Martin, ‘Directions in Population GIS‘, Geography Compass 5.9 (October, 2011): 655-65.

Geography Compass Content Alert: Volume 5, Issue 9 (September 2011)

The latest issue of Geography Compass is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break to view the full table of contents.

Continue reading

A different spin on immigration

By Jenny Lunn

A migrant arrives in the country every minute and the UK population will pass 70 million by 2028. To keep the population of the UK below 70 million, immigration must be reduced by 70%. These are some of the basic facts on immigration in the UK, according to MigrationWatchUK.

Unsurprisingly, immigration is one of the hot topics in the current general election campaign. Each of the parties are trying to ‘talk tough’ with different approaches to tackling it – Labour with a points-based system and an extra charge on visa applications for non-EU migrants, the Conservatives with an annual cap on numbers and a tightening of the student visa system, the Liberal Democrats with the reintroduction of entry and exit checks and a stronger National Border Force.

The political canvassing and media coverage focuses our attention on the domestic aspects of immigration. Similarly, traditional theories of migration concentrate primarily on understanding the situation in destination countries, looking at the socio-economic impacts on a national or local scale. In contrast, Lusis and Bauder’s article in Geography Compass (January 2010) calls for a wider perspective. Rather than concentrating on the domestic impact, they look at transnational scale to consider how socio-economic processes that operate at the global scale also influence the employment trajectories of immigrants.

When we hear the speeches and spin over the coming weeks, which build on a sense of threat and fear that immigration poses to the nation, we would do well to think in a different light. Think about immigration from the immigrant’s point of view. Consider the country they have come from and the economic and educational status they held there. And consider how an immigrant feels when the only employment they can secure is dirty, dangerous or degrading jobs that no one else wants to do. Consider how migrants use networks of co-nationals for advice on finding employment and coping in a different culture. But equally, consider how migrants maintain connections with their home communities.

In reality then, migration is a complex web of transnational interactions. The domestic situation is only part of the picture; a full understanding comes from understanding the various linkages, flows and connections.

Visit the MigrationWatchUK website

Read Lusis and Bauder’s article in Geography Compass