Sunday, June 27, 2010

Census 2

          There was another day of field training under supervision, a meeting of the whole local crew, and then, by the middle of the first week of May, we had all been issued binders for one or two blocks of buildings and the addresses of everyone in those buildings, including the names of those who had already responded by April 15. We could not have another binder until we had completed every questionnaire for the non-responding addresses. We were on our own.

          The immediate obsession of most enumerators is the dreaded Refusal. In that first week there were a fair number of people who'd simply forgotten, neglected or sent in late their mail-in questionnaires. But those that require in-person visits are naturally far more likely to be suspicious and reluctant, and literally the second door I knocked on was an RE. I developed a pleasant persistentness I doubt I could maintain for door-to-door sales - and naturally, since most people are more used to the idea of strangers ringing their doorbells selling something, the first priority was making sure they know that's not what I was. The second was making them understand how little information I wanted and how bound I was not to share it, and sometimes I never got that far. I have a particular personality that's very concerned with the sharing of information, but also feared that this eagerness would be counter-productive. It's an extremely emotionally draining job, with soaring highs and crushing lows and everything in between.

          As reformed in Title 13, the census is deliberately intended to be independent of other data collection, especially the IRS and INS. Not that my saying so will reassure immigrants. All of them must come from somewhere with some form of population estimation, for the determination of geographic vote allotment or otherwise. But the principle of keeping all authorities' hands from knowing what the other hands are doing as a means of protection may be counter-intuitive even - maybe especially - to those raised in the American educational system. And then again, why trust me just because I trust the principle? Bureaucracy too easily is considered to go hand in hand with corruption. The same law that criminalizes my leaking anything within a boundary of paperwork also criminalizes not cooperating with me. Census policy amongst enumerators is to keep most ignorant of this threat, partially because prosecuting is so much harder than allowing a wider statistical margin of error.

          While I have a massively bothersome conscience, it's not that I can't imagine how the census system could be abused. I know that the census materials, seemingly completely innocuous, could be used for identity theft if leaked. What's on the short-form questionnaire can't be use for that, of course, but with a few tweaks you could get social security numbers. It probably wasn't in my interest, but when people used the excuse of having "done it over the phone" or "already sent it back", I was willing to suggest that they hadn't been responding to the real census, especially when we'd finish and they'd ask "that's it?"

          It wasn't particularly useful to take on an air of authority or even dress as well as they wanted us to. I enjoyed the position of authority too much to be utterly casual enough to be asking birthdays innocuously, but approaching that was far more effective than confrontation. Of course, there are many people who respond badly to both chattiness and officiality. Fast=painless was a useful thing to mention when not going by the book, the book being just going straight through the questionnaire.

          One critical limitation was that we ourselves were not a proxy respondent. Information could not be generated by the observations of the enumerators, only by the responses of the interviewee to questions. I find this a very important argument against the all-too-easy The Truth Is Out There model, in which facts already exist before they are recorded. The census form itself carefully delineates the grammatology of facts - who or what counts as a person, and a residence, and an occupant, not to mention gender and race, and the especially fuzzy Hispanic Origin distinction. Any change in the shape these values fit into changes the fact.

Department of Redundancy Department, Ironic Ignorance Division

          Bruno Latour is the source for this kind of post-de-structuralist understanding of the social mechanisms of knowledge. Even looking at the root of "fact", you can see that it's something that is made, arduously. Information does not want to be free. Information wants to be wrong, and countering that entropy demands labor, and anywhere there is labor there is the question of pay.

          It may be easier to think about hard sciences as a collaboration between human, non-human, and hybrid objects when we look at the humanist biases of the census's statistical baseline for social science. Every quantum of personal information intends to be self-identification. Since it's faster to just let an informed respondent (who must be over 14) describe the entire household, this is merely an ideal. Critically, as with the Pirahã language, everything requires a source. At the NRFU stage, this is even limited to only a person that a person working as an enumerator has talked to. There is something very interesting that happens to social interaction when it is ordered by paper and print infrastructure as a means of constructing facts. The strategies of enumerators often aim to downplay this weirdness despite the legal carefulness of official instruction.

The very distinction between social and physical is limned by the human-paper work collaboration called the Census. By limn, I mean that it is a hybrid that creates the boundary by entangling its sides as much as possible. That we are specifically gathering social facts is entangled with way the bureau has defined society as made of humans. Like their lag on computer-based forms, this is one aspect of the census that I want to say makes it outdated in comparison to almost all other statistical sources - but embedded in that criticism is a contradictory The Truth Is Out There Error, as the census makes the understanding of society as without people.

To be continued. Again: questions and comments, please! I'm trying to remember what everyone has been curious about and curiously incurious about. I also need to get more non-identifying anecdotes in here and less generalizations. If you need me to explain some of the more arcane theory here I can do that.

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