Sociology and the Census
Today my 2010 Census form came in the mail, and I excitedly filled it out right away (it took less than a minute). If you are interested in sociology, the Census Bureau’s work is incredibly important. Its director, Robert M. Groves, is a sociologist who was previously a professor at the University of Michigan. Without the census we would have far less valuable information about American society. (Click here to see the 2010 Census questions).
But we don’t just have a census for sociologists. It is mandated in the U.S. Constitution to be conducted every ten years, primarily for the purpose of figuring out how many representatives each state should have in Congress. (There are 435 seats; if an area loses population they could also lose a representative and another area could gain a representative.) The census also helps to decide how to allocate funding for projects around the country.
A census is different from a survey; while the census seeks to count the entire population, a survey typically only involves a cross-section of a population. And while surveys drawn from probability sampling are typically reliable and can help us make generalizations about a population, ideally a census includes everyone.
Of course like any research, the census faces challenges in gathering information. Many people have lost their homes in recent years and may be homeless. Census workers try hard to include everyone—including the homeless—but they can be a difficult population to track down. Others might be so accustomed to getting junk mail that they never open their census form, while some may not want to give any information to the government at all.
By law, the census is private and your personal information cannot be shared with law enforcement, immigration, tax collectors, or anyone else. After 72 years the information becomes public, so in 2082 historians and our descendents doing genealogy research can find out more about us. If you like programs such as Faces of America or Who Do You Think You Are? you might have noticed that they use old census data to trace ancestors of the celebrities featured on the show.
The census is also vital to aid our research into core areas within sociology. We find out basic information about the size of the population, and its composition by age, gender, race and ethnicity. You might wonder, for instance, why the census asks about race and ethnicity. For sociologists doing research on racial inequality, the information the census collects is vital. We can learn about residential segregation and assess how the racial/ethnic composition of an area has changed over time. We can learn if there are relationships between race and home ownership from the census too.
The Census Bureau also conducts a regular survey, called the American Community Survey (ACS), which asks more questions than the basic census does. From the ACS, we can learn about income distribution, educational attainment, births, marriage and divorce, employment, transportation, and how often people move from place to place, to name a few topics. It’s likely that tens of thousands of research studies have been conducted using these data. (Click here to read the actual survey)
If you have done research yourself, you might have used the Statistical Abstract to locate some basic facts about the U.S. population, which is comprised of census data. From a researcher’s perspective, one of the best parts of census data in the age of the Internet is that it is easy to access and free. While once upon a time you would have to go to the library or buy data on tapes for statistical analysis, it’s mostly available online now.
In my current research, I have used census data to look at changes in divorce rates dating back to the nineteenth century, to compare changes in college attendance and graduation rates throughout the twentieth century, and to look at how the age at first marriage changed during the twentieth century.
Without data from the census, we would know very little about American society as a whole. The census helps us to identify major social changes, patterns of inequality, as well as help us understand the composition of what makes America unique. So don’t forget to fill out your 2010 Census form—you will be making your contribution to sociological research.