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140 years of progress: I will not ask you if you are afflicted with lunacy

November 15, 2011

I might as well say it, I’m inclined towards being Politically Correct because it just seems like the most courteous way to be, and as a researcher I’m keen to ask ethical questions that respondents feel comfortable answering.   In a previous blog post I wrote about ‘outing’ people in surveys by asking them inappropriate and thoughtless questions about their personal lives and I have also written before about whether the Census should be changed to ask about sexuality.

Well quite by chance I came across some information about a question asked in ye olde census which made me laugh and shudder at its sheer awfulness.     

In the 1871 Census people were asked whether anyone in their household was:

  1. Deaf and dumb
  2. Blind
  3. Imbecile or idiot
  4. Lunatic

Respondents were invited to “write the respective infirmities against the name of the afflicted person”.  This continued through several cycles of the census, and in 1911 respondents could also select ‘feeble minded’ (an important distinction?) in addition to those above.  After that, these questions on ‘infirmities’ did not continue.

Which is good, obviously, because by today’s standards much of this terminology is entirely inappropriate and sticking any of this in the census is ethically and methodologically questionable too.  Thankfully this is not the way that we think about disability anymore.  Even in 1881 the powers that be recognised that their methods were not really working, saying “how very incomplete are the returns which relate to these afflictions, and more especially those which relate to idiocy and imbecility.”  It seems people were not keen to put down on paper that a member of their household was an ‘imbecile’.  Funny that.  It didn’t stop them asking though, the question wasn’t taken out until 1921.

The Census is snapshot of a place in time and it is interesting to see how the Census represents the times as they were and the world as people saw it.  However the world changes rapidly, and research needs to change with it to keep up.  I often wonder what we do or say today that will be considered bigoted and inappropriate in the future.  I cringe for myself in advance.

But as researchers we have to do the best we can to respectfully capture the world today the way the respondents of today see it.

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