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Ab Imperio


A census is an example of the social construction of knowledge and the politics of measurement. Measuring people assumes a political significance because it entails converting heterogeneous populations into numbers—stable pieces of knowledge that can be easily combined and manipulated. In constructing such numerical representations, census officials claim to be creating an objective portrait of the population. Censuses, however, also contribute to something less tangible by playing a key role in the creation of what Benedict Anderson has termed an “imagined community.” General censuses provide states with a unique opportunity to unify space and populations with a single instrument. Furthermore, in their quest to secure a statistical portrait of what their polity “is” census officials shape the resultant outcome on the basis of categories derived from their own conceptions of what their polity has been. Measurers’ agendas and biases become objectified in the construction of the census form, the creation of census categories, and the publication of census data. The census-taking component of the imagining process is itself divided between central census administrators (those who create census forms, rules for their completion, etc.) and census workers in the field—local census authorities and enumerators whose own conceptions of what is being counted intrude into the interpretation of rules and the enumeration of people. Ultimately, the numbers derived from the census process are used to reify or alter prior images of the polity and to evaluate, conceptualize and control.

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