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A Cultural History of the British Census

Envisioning the Multitude in the Nineteenth Century


Kathrin Levitan


Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Hardcover. xii+272 p. ISBN 978-0230119376. £55.00


Reviewed by Charles V. Reed

Elizabeth City State University (North Carolina)



As the title suggests, Kathrin Levitan’s A Cultural History of the British Census is a richly sourced and useful examination of the cultural and social meaning of the British census, first taken in 1801, from the perspective of different historical actors and groups over the course of the nineteenth century. Levitan explores how the collection of social knowledge in the census developed and helped constitute group identities of class and nation and informed public discourses about population surplus, poverty, migration, political representation, and gender roles. Against a Foucault-inspired tendency to understand government undertakings such as the census as an expression of state intelligence and social control, Levitan adopts a more Habermasian approach. She argues that the census produced knowledge in a press-dominated public sphere that was particularly invested in the preservation of liberty and against the mechanisms of government control of information. This is an overall satisfying book to read that offers a fresh perspective on the social and cultural meaning of the census to nineteenth-century Britons.

Levitan’s book reminds one of the sub-title of Linda Colley’s now-classic examination of British nationalism during the “Second” Hundred Years’ War between Britain and France, Britons : Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (1992). While not a book of the same scale – it does not intend to be – Levitan highlights the ways in which the British census was “accepted and appropriated by large numbers of British people” who used to it “understand, control, and improve the population the population… [and] to recognize themselves and others as members of groups and to claim rights and privileges for these groups” [1]. For Levitan, the census figured far more importantly than has been identified by previous scholars in popular understandings of who belonged to the political, social, and cultural community of the British nation and those who did not. While the cultural importance ascribed to the census by Levitan might be somewhat overstated (an issue that I will confront momentarily), her analysis demonstrates that the census is a fascinating and telling lens through which to view the major issues of nineteenth-century British political and social history.

In well-argued chapters on the social politics of population growth and political representation, Levitan boldly asserts the role of the census as “a nation-building project concerned directly with social harmony and unity” [71]. Her chapter on the census and population [47-72] explores how the census informed popular understandings of and served to enumerate “surplus” populations during an area of Malthusian-inspired anxiety over Britain’s rapidly growing population. According to Levitan, these fears of overpopulation were deflated over time – replaced by a belief in population as a symbol of national strength; in this the census was applied to a new national project of social renewal, the eugenics movement. Her chapter on the census and political representation [73-96] persuasively argues that the census played a significant role in how different “interests” (cities and regions, social classes, religious communities) imagined – and justified – their centrality to a British nation and political community (“People realized that they needed the census in order to be ‘represented’ ” [74]). Through the census, Levitan argues, the British political order came to embrace numerical calculations of representation (democratization?) over “interests,” transforming the very nature of British politics. Both of these analyses demonstrate how important the enumeration of the census – and the multivalent interpretations of those statistics – could and did profoundly inform political and social discourses in Britain.

There are, however, some missed opportunities in Levitan’s analysis of race and empire through the optic of the census. For one, Levitan gives little attention to colonial subjects – other than the Irish – within the British metropole, a subject given thoughtful attention by a number of authors (see, for instance, Antoinette Burton, At the Heart of the Empire : Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late Victorian Britain [1998]). While numbers of non-Irish colonial subjects in Britain during the nineteenth century were relatively small – particularly when compared to the decades after the Second World War – the census forms did track place of birth. Were the numbers so small that they did not register in the public discourse? Were there no concerns or anxieties about empire-born subjects in the British metropole? This kind of analysis would also make Levitan’s book relevant to a long-standing debate about the role of empire on domestic society in Britain. Levitan extends a more traditional line about empire being a laboratory of experimentation, where information could be gathered that “would not have been considered acceptable [to collect] in Britain” [153]. It is worth nothing that, while much scholarship on the collection of knowledge and the enumeration of populations in the empire has focused on its role in the development of colonial rule, Levitan contends that the knowledge of the census was – in Britain – appropriated and used largely by society itself. A further exploration of this seeming contradiction – and a more systemic analysis of colonial censuses – would deepen the book’s contribution to the history of the British Empire. That said, Levitan’s book is not principally about empire – and I do not wish to impose that analytic frame on her. It appears that, in these summer (or autumn?) days of the “imperial turn,” no work on British history can stand without some mention of the colonial context.

My other question about the study and its premises relates to the relative impact of the census on the issues at hand. Without question, any study that focuses on a particular subject is bound to privilege the significance of that subject over others – after all, why bother studying it if it is not of particular importance? Moreover, as we dig conceptually deeper and deeper into our specific topics, we are bound to lose some perspective on our topic in relation to other possible answers. But, the question still remains, how important was the census to how people imagined British society? From Levitan’s book, it is clear that many intellectuals and newspaper writers invested enormous importance in the census (though, one must wonder how frequently and when the census is mentioned at the aggregate level?). How did the census inform and shape – even if through the aforementioned intellectuals and newspaper writers – popular conceptions of belonging and identity? It is, of course, unlikely that everyday people ruminated much on the census in their diaries or letters. The question is a tricky one – for which I cannot offer a clear or obvious answer – but it strikes me to be an important part of the story told by Levitan.

These minor criticisms aside, Kathrin Levitan’s A Cultural History of the British Census is a useful and engaging study about the meaning of the census in British society. In addition to shining new light on an old source and convincingly asserting its importance to British conceptions of themselves, it is also a well-crafted intellectual history that traces ideas about belonging identity in Britain through the transformations of nineteenth-century politics.


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