the 2011 census and the first statistical account of Scotland, 1794-1825

The Grassmarket Community Project held a session today to help people fill in their census forms, so there were interesting and varied discussions about the merits of recording such data.

A very interesting point was passionately made by one of the other guys, who argued that the census is a missed opportunity to canvass opinion on how to determine local needs. This argument reminded me about the first statistical survey of Scotland 1794-1825, in which parish ministers across Scotland were asked a series of questions about their parish, and returned their answers and observations. Was this a survey for determining local needs?

I’d previously read the account for where my mum lives, so was able to recall a bit about that section. Now, I took the opportunity to visit the Central Library and look for the account of the parish where the guy lives. Interesting enough for me, but it really resonated with him and turned out to be a good way to put this years census into context.

The parochial statistics were compiled into county tables, and from there into a single statistical account of Scotland. This overall analysis was published 30 years after the original surveys were sent out! I fail to see how that could be used to accurately determine local needs.

On the other hand, the “Analysis of the statistical accounts of Scotland” by John Sinclair (1825) has a great wee essay On the advantages of statistical inquiries which lays out arguments; in particular it argues that it is impossible to establish solid general principles without the previous study of particulars, and that authors who neglected to investigate the internal structure of communities would produce more speculative argument than practical advice. This is the nub of the matter, and concerns me: the census is about static qualities of individuals and households; it’s not about the interactions between individuals, households and communities.

Enough speculation! I’ve got the Analysis out of the library, so I’d better go an read it before pontificating more.

You can view the parish statistical accounts here

Other statistical things:

Hans Rosling’s The Joy of Stats is on telly again, on BBC2 late on Thursday!, and I expect it’ll be on iPlayer afterwards. A must-see!

Hans Rosling is also on ted.com. Here’s his talk new insights into poverty

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