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periodic official count of the number of persons and their condition and of the resources of a country. In ancient times, among the Jews and Romans, such enumeration was mainly for taxation and conscription purposes. The introduction of the modern census—a periodic and thorough statistical review—began in the 17th cent. The first efforts to count people in areas larger than cities at regular periods were in French Canada (1665), Sweden (1749), the Italian states (1770), and the United States (1790). The first British census was taken in 1801. The Belgian census of 1846, directed by Adolphe QueteletQuetelet, Adolphe
, 1796–1874, Belgian statistician and astronomer. He was the first director (1828) of the Royal Observatory at Brussels. As supervisor of statistics for Belgium (from 1830), he developed many of the rules governing modern census taking and stimulated
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, was the most influential in its time because it introduced a careful analysis and critical evaluation of the data compiled. Most industrialized countries now take a census every 5 to 10 years.

Scientific census-taking in the United States began with the decennial census of 1850, when the scope and methods were greatly improved by making the individual the unit of study. In 1902 the Bureau of the Census was established in the Dept. of the Interior; the following year it was transferred to the Dept. of Commerce and Labor and remained in the Dept. of Commerce when the Dept. of Labor was separated (1913). In addition to being a vital source of statistical data about the nation, information from the U.S. census is also used to allocate federal resources.

The government was criticized and also sued for undercounting the homeless and minorities in the 1990 census. In 1996 the Supreme Court ruled that the decision to adjust the count is left to the discretion of the secretary of commerce. The government proposed remedying the problem of undercounting through the use of statistical adjustments to the 2000 census, but the Supreme Court ruled (1998) against the plan, and the traditional head-count method prevailed. In 2001 the government again decided to use unadjusted census figures. About 3.3 million people, largely minorities, were estimated to have been missed by the 2000 census; a smaller number were thought to have been counted twice. Unadjusted census figures are generally believed to favor Republicans in the drawing of districts for the House of Representatives.

A move by the Trump administration to include a question on U.S. citizenship, which had not been widely asked since 1950, on the 2020 census resulted in a legal battle in which the Supreme Court criticized the reasons the government gave in court as contrived; the move had been attacked by Democrats as an attempt to reduce the participation of households with immigrants. The administration subsequently sought other means to acquire citizenship data, using federal and state records, and sought to use that information to remove illegal immigrants from the headcounts used for drawing congressional districts. The COVID-19 pandemic complicated the 2020 count, and statisticians questioned the quality of the collected data. The 2000 census was the first that could be responded to online but that fact was not publicized; by the 2020 census, most U.S. household responded online.


See W. S. Holt, The Bureau of the Census (1929, repr. 1974); F. Yates, Sampling Methods for Censuses and Surveys (4th ed. 1980); M. J. Anderson, The American Census (1990); S. Roberts, Who We Are: A Portrait of America Based on the 1990 Census (1994).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. www.cc.columbia.edu/cu/cup/


a government-sponsored, universal and obligatory survey of all individuals in a geographical area. The British Census is a major source of SECONDARY DATA because:
  1. it offers data on a comprehensive range of topics, many of which are not included in other surveys;
  2. its large size permits the analysis of some topics in greater detail;
  3. its size and scope permit the analysis of numerous interrelationships.

With the introduction of punched-card processing in 1911, and the use of computers in 1961, the amount of information that can be collected and processed has been dramatically increased.

The Census Act, 1920, requires that a census be taken in Britain at intervals of not less than five years. With the exception of the 1966 Census (so far the only quinquennial census), censuses have been taken in Britain since 1801 (except in 1941 when there was no census).

The earliest censuses (1801-31) took the form of simple head counts. Self-completion forms were introduced in 1841. Since 1961 the census has involved most households completing a simple questionnaire and every tenth household completing a more detailed questionnaire.

The census has a number of important applications for the sociologist, including:

  2. analysis of changing trends reflected in housing, education, work, etc;
  3. studies of particular groups. Following demand from local authorities, academic researchers, market-research organizations, central government, and other organizations, Small Area Statistics have been introduced, based on the enumeration districts which comprise 500 people on average, which may also be aggregated to gain a picture of a particular area such as a parliamentary constituency, a school catchment area or a health authority district.

The census has also become a fruitful area for historical research and there is a growing interest in time-series research, or cliometrics in which modern statistical techniques are applied to historical data. See also SOCIAL SURVEY, FAMILY EXPENDITURE SURVEY, GENERAL HOUSEHOLD SURVEY, OFFICIAL STATISTICS, STATISTICS AND STATISTICAL ANALYSIS.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) In ancient Rome, the registration of citizens, with indication of their possessions, for the purpose of determining the citizens’ sociopolitical, military, and tax status. According to classical tradition, the introduction of the census is ascribed to Servius Tullius (sixth century B.C.), who divided the citizenry into five classes, or orders, determined on the basis of property qualifications. A citizen’s status was evidently originally dependent on his land or movable property; later it came to depend on his money. A census was taken once every five years. The census taking was supervised at first by the king and later by the consul; in 443 B.C. the office of censor was created for this purpose, but in the imperial age the emperor assumed the functions of the censor.

(2) In medieval Western and Central Europe, a quitrent or tax paid by the peasants. The census was the same as the czynsz, or Zins.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A complete counting of a population, as opposed to a partial counting or sampling.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. an official periodic count of a population including such information as sex, age, occupation, etc.
2. (in ancient Rome) a registration of the population and a property evaluation for purposes of taxation
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005