1. What can you learn from census data?
When I set out to be a historian, I never thought that I would spend a lot of time reading census data. The problem that I confronted in my work on nationalism in the Hapsburg Monarchy is that the average person in the late 19th and early 20th century is largely invisible.
We often have to rely on what journalists said about the working class or about rural women. We have to rely on what members of Parliament said in their speeches which, of course, are highly tinged by their political programs. We have to rely on memoirs of members of the elite describing their interactions with common people. Or we have to rely on a very small number of memoirs or surviving letters that average people left behind. And this gives a really incomplete picture. So I turned to census data in an attempt to try to reconstruct, at least partially, the lives of average people.
Most historians use some kind of numbers in their work. Political historians use election returns. Social historians use social data produced by census authorities and others. Economic historians, of course, live in a world of numbers. Students need to understand that historical scholarship is largely informed by dataespecially historical scholarship of the modern period meaning 18th, 19th, and 20th centuriesbecause of trends in the historical profession, but also because the data get better. So, for instance, any estimate of death as a result of the bubonic plague is truly an estimate based on some sophisticated guessing. Estimates of death by tuberculosis in the Hapsburg Monarchy are based on very good data.
I began looking at census data with the advent of the modern Austrian census in 1880. Then, its gathered consistently from 1880 up until 1910, which was the last census in the Empire before the First World War and then the Empire falls apart in 1918.
You can learn a number of things about the voters from these materials. You can learn how literate the voters were. You can learn what kind of employment they engaged in. You can learn how their lives were affected by various diseases, like tuberculosis.
You can learn to a limited degree what their national identity was. The Hapsburg Empire was a multinational state. The people of the monarchy spoke 17 different languages. No single group was the dominant national group. The Germans made up about a third of the population, the Czechs about a quarter of the population, the Poles almost 20 percent of the population. Then various other Slavic groups like the Slovenes and the Serbs and the Croats together made up somewhere in the vicinity of 20 percent of the population. And then there were small groups of Italians and Jews and others.
So in the census data, people are not asked, What is your national identity? What is your national group? Instead, they are asked, What language do you most commonly use? And so if you identified your language of everyday use as Czech, then today we use this as a proxy for Czech. Or if you said Slovene, then we say that thats a proxy for Slovene.
By 1880, this is a very reasonable proxy for national identity because the census taking became politicized. Political leaders in all of the various ethnic groups in the monarchy urged their people to answer correctly. If you were a Czech and you didnt say Czech on your census form, you were betraying your nation.
So you learn many things about their lives, but you learn it only in aggregate because these data dont provide us with individual snapshots of individual lives. They tell us about the people who lived in Prague or the people who lived in Kolín or the people who lived in Přibram. So we only know about large groups of people. Its a collective biography of the workers in this sense or of the common people or of the voters. Its not an individual biography.