Dr. Anne-Kathrin Will 

Census categories at the intersection of normative order, representation and anti‐discrimination

10 October 2022 to 31 March 2023

Research Description:

Census surveys are essential governmental tools. Historically, censuses have been focused on war-fighting capability and nutrition. In nation-states whose interest rests on the population and its living conditions, census surveys also contribute to the imagination of the nation. The advancement of data collection and analysis technologies, from census counting cards and punch cards to online questionnaires and computer-assisted analysis, supported the satisfaction of ever-growing data needs. The data analyses and population representations stemming from censuses are powerful instruments of domination. Censuses make populations visible and invisible. The visible populations participate in the discourse through repeated use of the data about them in politics, the media, and academia. The invisible parts of the population are denied similar representation in the discourse because data on their numbers and living conditions are lacking.

In the preparation of census surveys, this (in)visibility is produced by defining the themes to be implemented through questions and answers. It has become established practice to specify answer categories to reduce the analysis effort and make the abundance of data manageable. This means that information processing and reduction are already built into the mode of data collection. Before it, however, determinations are made as to what is asked and what is accepted as an answer. Here, normative ideas about the population are inscribed (e.g., a division by gender based on a binary distinction or based on multiple genders), which are then later reproduced in the presentation of data.

The project is concerned with visible population segments generated in a specific way in census surveys, namely socio-ethno-racial umbrella categories. Such umbrella categories are more than just a summary of previously designed response options. Specifically, she considers the category “scheduled caste/scheduled tribe/other backward classes” in the Indian Census, represented on the survey form as “SC/ST/Other”, in comparison to the category of “visible minorities” formed by Statistics Canada and “migration background” in the German context. All three categories are very different summaries of information about affiliations or biographical information. They are embedded in diversity and equality policies and are therefore controversial. By grouping different subpopulations, they reduce complexity and overlay internal hierarchies. She wants to compare the impacts of these three similarly grouped yet very different official umbrella categories and examine their implications for diversity and equality policies.


Anne-Kathrin Will is a social and cultural anthropologist and holds a PhD in European Ethnology from the Humboldt University in Berlin. She is researching the census category “migration background” for her habilitation project. Her doctoral thesis in medical anthropology focused on granting a right of residence to Bosnian traumatized refugees in Berlin (http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/18452/16716). She teaches at Humboldt University in Berlin, Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, and the University of Applied Sciences in Neubrandenburg. Her recent research and teaching activities include humanitarian granting of residence in Germany, operationalization of migration background, discourses of belonging, and representation of minorities.

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