The contentious politics of the census in consociational democracies

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: IDD


This project investigates the politics of the census in societies that are deeply divided along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines, addressing some of the core themes in the RCUK Cross-Council Research Programme on Global Uncertainties.

In societies that are emerging from violent conflict between different ethnic, religious or linguistic groups, peace is often maintained through an agreement that these groups will share power. One of the main ways in which agreement on such power sharing is reached is through the proportional allocation of roles in government, the civil service, the military and the police to members of the groups who have been in conflict. For example, the peace agreement might specify that a certain proportion of the parliament is reserved for members of a particular minority group. In order to assess what such proportionality looks like, though, an accurate census is required. The process of conducting a census in this context can be particularly challenging, especially when group leaders know that their share of political power is partly dependent on the results. This can result in intense debates about how census questions are worded, and the conduct of the census itself may be affected by campaigns to get respondents to answer questions in particular ways, in the belief that this will influence their political representation.

This aspect of the politics of the census in deeply divided societies has not been studied in significant depth by social scientists, and as a result we know little about the relationship between the design of political institutions in these societies and the likelihood of the census becoming the subject of contentious political debates. This research project will address this lack of knowledge through examining the politics of the census in four deeply divided societies: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, Kenya and Lebanon. In designing and conducting the project, I will work with policy-makers and practitioners in order to generate knowledge about how contentious political debates about the census in deeply divided societies can be mitigated, thus contributing to peaceful relations between groups that have previously been in conflict.

I will achieve this by conducting extensive fieldwork, involving focus groups and interviews with key policy-makers and civil society representatives in the four case-study countries as well as at international organisations with responsibility for setting census standards, including the United Nations Statistics Division and Eurostat. A workshop held in Brussels during the research design phase of the project will allow policy-makers and members of civil society with an interest in the census to have an input into the design of the project, and knowledge co-production will continue into the analysis phase through dialogue with practitioners. Following the successful conclusion of the fieldwork, outputs will include traditional academic publications including a book and journal articles, but also more accessible policy summaries and articles for online media outlets. The findings of the research will also be disseminated through a further public engagement event in Brussels.

The project will also contribute to my own development as a researcher. As part of the proposed project, I will undertake training in focus group methods, public engagement and interaction with the media. I will also build links with established researchers across a number of disciplines, including political science, geography and anthropology. Completion of the project will help to establish me as a leading researcher into the politics of the census and of deeply divided societies. The experience gained from conducting the research will enable me to make informed contributions to public debate on these topics, and also to broaden the range of teaching that I offer to students in the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham.

Planned Impact

The primary non-academic beneficiaries of the proposed research project are policy-makers working on issues of institutional design and on the design and implementation of censuses in deeply divided societies, and civil society actors who engage with the design and implementation of the census.

The policy-makers include officials who are engaged in conflict settlement processes, who are often reliant on census data in order to make calculations about the proportional representation of different national, ethnic, religious or linguistic groups, and those tasked with the design and implementation of the census itself. The project will benefit national-level officials in the four case-study countries, as well as policy-makers in other countries facing similar issues, and the staff of international organisations and donors which play a role in setting standards, providing technical support and financing censuses in deeply divided societies. Given that censuses are key sources of socio-economic data, are typically only undertaken once per decade, and are costly to undertake, it is important that politicisation of the census does not threaten its successful operation.

The research will also be of benefit to civil society actors, who are often consulted about the design of census questions and who may engage in campaigns to ensure compliance with the census, or to encourage respondents to answer questions about ethnic, religious or linguistic identity in particular ways. Working with civil society representatives, the project will generate detailed insights into the wider dynamics of census processes, and of how their campaigns connect with broader debates about political representation in deeply divided societies. The research therefore has significant potential for positive societal impact.

The research will involve consultation with policy-makers and civil society representatives at an early stage and ongoing over the course of the research, in order to ensure that the research design is relevant to the concerns of these stakeholders. This consultation, which will be designed to facilitate co-production of knowledge, will take the form of initial discussions with key beneficiaries identified with the help of the project mentors and a project advisory group, followed by a workshop for interested policy-makers, and interviews conducted at the United Nations Statistics Division in New York and Eurostat in Luxembourg.

Officials working on conflict settlement or the design and implementation of the census in the case-study countries will be a key source of existing knowledge on some of the links between the design of political institutions and the politics of the census in those country contexts. The proposed research, however, will provide comparative insights from across the four case-study countries. This will enable lessons to be learned from cases of good practice, where the census has been conducted with a relatively low level of contention. These lessons will be disseminated both through traditional academic outputs, including a monograph and journal articles, but also through an end-of-project public engagement event and the publication of policy briefings. Broader societal impact will be sought through writing about the findings of the project for online media outlets.

In the longer term, I envisage that the project will have a lasting impact through helping to establish me as an expert on the topic of the politics of the census in deeply divided societies. This might result in me being called upon to provide input into the design of censuses, for example through being consulted by or appointed to census advisory groups. I would also be in a good position to provide evidence to parliamentary committees, both in the UK and abroad.


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