Life as a Census Enumerator

09 Jul

My life as a census enumerator began at a training event in early spring last year. I remember it because it became symbolic of all the training events which I was required to attend before and during my time as a census enumerator. These training events soon became boring, bureaucratic processes which I had to endure. Trying to keep my eyes open and remain interested in these back-patting events became one of the duties of being a census enumerator that I hadn’t foreseen. In fact, I was amazed how quickly these training events made something as exciting, informative and revealing as the census sound mundane, statistical and routine!! Thank god for coffee and tray bakes! I had to watch a video on how to lift a box without injury; another on storing census forms safely; another on the administrative tasks that had to be completed throughout our post; another which involved a role play of a census enumerator carrying out his role. As these were the highlight tasks at training days, I sighed as I began to regret what I had let myself in for.

The reality of being a census enumerator, thankfully, came to be quite different. The census well and truly is exciting, informative and revealing. I received many lessons in life simply because of the diversity of people that I was coming across and the stories that I was being told. I seen and heard things, some good others bad, that I never would, had I not took the census enumerator position. It wasn’t the information that was collected on the census form that was most revealing of the day-to-day characteristics and life of the population in my census area. Actually, it was probably the opposite. The reality and, at times, truth of life is often very different both from what a routine training day can prepare us for and what the information provided on a census form can tell us about the characteristics of a population. I have since deliberated many times over the reliability and validity of information collected on the census form. When we collect data on every member of the population how can there be issues of reliability and validity? I sat with countless people who had some questions about the census. These included, but by no means was confined to questions such as why questions were being asked, what questions asked meant, how information provided on the census form was going to be used, who has access to their responses, what was the point in some of the questions. It turns out that it is not just social scientists that scrutinise the value of questions on a questionnaire.

My main task as census enumerator involved carrying out three reminder visits to houses that hadn’t sent back their completed census form. I had very specific tasks to complete, but reality was getting in the way! It was at this stage that most of the bureaucratic, rationalised training went out the window. I helped people complete their census forms. I explained to people what the census was. I heard countless illuminating narratives of life. I drank tea. I saw absolute poverty. I witnessed the value of social connections. My concern though – none of this information is captured in the census form. I’ve thought considerably about the extent that the census misses capturing reality in favour of the collection of data which can be statistically analysed. How can we overcome this though? How can we collect information on the characteristics of the population from every single person who lives in the country, without making it manageable and adaptable to statistical manipulation? I have a tendency to ask myself this question differently. At what stage can standardised, descriptive questions which are necessary when collecting data on such a mass scale make room for the rich, prescriptive reality of human life? How can we capture the sound of the world in which people navigate their lives, alongside the collection of standardised, statistically robust information? I got some ideas on this while working as a census enumerator.

As I went door-to-door reminding people to complete their census form I was often asked to come in to help with completion. Although I was supposed to arrange a fulfilment visit and go back with another census enumerator, I often made my own risk assessment and entered numerous households to help with census completion. This made me think about the usefulness of the method that the mass of census forms are collected. Forms are dispensed in the post to each household; the majority of people complete their form and post it back. Most people do not come in contact with a census enumerator. Though already there is a story missed, a part of history left untold. As census enumerator I got a mirror to the lives of many people. The poverty that I saw some people live with was definitely the most eye opening part of being a census enumerator. The difference I saw in living standards from one house to the next was another. I am going to present snippets of life and some of my thoughts on the beat as census enumerator. My only regret is not writing these stories down as they happened. I had many more.

One house I entered there was no paint on the walls, there was ripped lino on the floor of the living room and kitchen, it was cold, and well, frankly, it was run down and in need of maintenance. The elderly pensioner who lived on their own couldn’t carry this out themselves. Their worry was turning on the heater for me whilst I was there. My worry was that the heater would not be on after I’d left! Another house I was met with a gasping woman who had been diagnosed with throat cancer that same day. As she puffed on her cigarette, she told me how she had been worrying about getting the census form filled in. She had seen the advertisements on the television about the legal consequences for not filling in a form. This elderly woman had been in bed sick for the past three weeks and couldn’t believe her luck when I called the same day that she was up and about for her hospital appointment! In her eyes she avoided a day in court. In my eyes the census form tells us nothing about the reality of census completion.

I often noticed a distinct difference between those who had social connections and social support and those who didn’t. Those who did had a home with comforts like cushions and ornaments. Those who didn’t had a house with a roof, a door and basic necessities. Food wasn’t always a necessity. I heard stories about how untimely it was that summer was on its way. For this mother it became a choice between eating and buying new clothes for the children for summer. Relative poverty has a lot to answer for.

I came across numerous people who, when declaring they had a mental illness under the health section of the census form, were very clear about how this mental illness was conveyed. They worded it in ways such as “I get a wee bit of depression from time to time, but I’m not mad or anything!” or “Well I take tablets for bi-polar but I’m normal”. These stories often left untold, even from those closest to them, illuminated, to me, the stigma and the pressures of the social world that people must live. I heard stories from ex-navy and ex-army officers about their life, past and present. These were fascinating insights into how people perceived the world around them and how people choose to construct and explain the reality of living in Northern Ireland.  I saw social support in full swing as children were dropped in neighbour’s houses at the last minute. I saw the social companionship that a cat or a dog can bring. I heard about the comfort and security that having a neighbour’s phone number to ring in an emergency can bring to one’s peace of mind, even if it’s never used. I saw the value of community, as people were concerned with each other’s lives. As I continuously hear Prime Minister David Cameron argue that society is broken. I deliberate over how those in close contact with society can report on the rich societies in which we still live.

Other houses I seen nothing. They had nothing for me to see. I hear that absolute poverty doesn’t exist in Northern Ireland. It does. I saw it.

Life as a census enumerator was one of the most fulfilling, enlightening jobs that I have had. Sadly though most of what I seen is not captured in the census. I am not suggesting here that the census should try to carry out data collection ethnographically. I’m suggesting that perhaps there is a need for the expansion of the role of the census enumerator. Had all census enumerators wrote a detailed diary describing some of the things that they saw on the field, then perhaps we might be better equipped to describe the characteristics of life in Northern Ireland in 2011. My census enumerator experience is one I’ve talked about many times. I wonder how many other census enumerators are in the same position.

A story to be told left untold.


Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “Life as a Census Enumerator

  1. Caoimhe

    July 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    That’s a really interesting perspective. I suppose for me filling out the census is a fairly accessible and ‘easy’ thing to do. As a sociologist, I know the importance of it and the way in which the information can be used. However, I certainly forget that it can be fairly intimidating for some and that the lived experience of the census impacts us in vastly different ways. Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. lisawilsonie

    July 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Yeah it has always been the same for me – and I guess having been trained as a sociologist for most of my adult life I always feel a ‘duty’ to fill in questionnaires I kinda forgot about how invasive it can be for those who dont know where the information is going and who are on always on guard for what the Gov wants to know now. I mean, trying to explain the worth of some questions was at times tricky, even to myself. But the census has always been something which intrigued me – looking back at the 1911 census is amazing, even just seeing the handwriting, or the details of great or great great aunts/uncles that died that you never knew about, the occupations everything. I can only wish that the census enumerator, at the time, had written a little about the life behind the facts!! Though for me, even then, there was more life in it than there is now – most of it is tick box. That job really taught me the value of ethography, the difficult bit, is doing it justice in the write up!!


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