The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age

Andrew Whitby. Basic, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-5416-1934-0
Data scientist Whitby debuts with a timely yet somewhat ponderous history of population counting, ahead of the 2020 census. He traces the practice as far back as the first millennium BCE, when the king of a nomadic warrior tribe in Central Asia asked each of his people to bring him an arrowhead, and notes that the earliest Chinese census may have been connected to efforts to divert the Yellow River into irrigation channels. In 1086 CE, William the Conqueror became one of the first European rulers to create an enumeration process; it included people as well as cows, mills, and plough teams. Despite religious doctrine (some interpreted the Book of Exodus as implying that population counting was “innately sinful”) and fears of forced military conscription, decennial census taking became an established practice by the mid-19th century. Whitby explores the role of the census in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews and in the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. He also engages in thorough and highly technical discussions of statistical methods. General readers may find the level of detail dizzying, but Whitby makes a persuasive case that studying the history of the census can help make the practice more beneficial. Those with a deep interest in the subject will find this comprehensive account rewarding. (Mar.)
Reviewed on : 02/14/2020
Release date: 03/31/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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