Interrogating the Colonial Census in India

This page authored by Parna Sengupta, Carleton College
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This assignment is meant for an upper division course on colonial and post-colonial India. The assignment, divided into two parts, asks students to consider the decennial census as both a tool of modern (colonial) governance and a source of historical data. The assignment is meant to push students to consider both the ideology behind quantitative data collection as well as a resource that allows scholars to illuminate aspects of history that cannot necessarily be gleaned from more qualitative sources.

Learning Goals

  • To give students an opportunity to consider theoretical and historical critiques of the relationship between the gathering of quantitative data and colonialism.
  • To acknowledge the critiques and limitations of colonial census data while also recognizing the importance of such data to historians.
  • To learn how to ask good historical questions of quantitative sources
  • To learn how to represent data in different ways, and how that representation might shape the conclusions we draw from the data.
  • To consider change over time, the bread and butter of history itself.

Context for Use

This assignment is given mid-way through an upper-division course in history at a small liberal arts college. It requires some knowledge of colonialism and the ability to read and understand theoretical literature. The assignment asks students to understand and engage with the critiques of historical sources, like the colonial census, in order to productively use census data to ask and answer historical questions. This assignment could certainly be used in other history courses and also productively redesigned so that students might consider census data in different national contexts.

Description and Teaching Materials

Assignment description (Microsoft Word 45kB Feb11 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips


Part I
  • - Students' ability to demonstrate an understanding of the theoretical and historical literature
  • - Students' ability to integrate those insights into their analysis of the census as a primary source.
  1. Analytic argument expressed in clear terms in the introductory paragraph.
  2. Use of evidence to support the analytic claims that are made.
  3. Conclusion that considers the implications of their analysis.
Part II:
  • Students should be able to fulfill each section and demonstrate an understanding of the different ways that quantitative data can be used and represented.
  • Each section should clearly explain the student's findings.
  • The first section should demonstrate an understanding of how to ask historical questions of quantitative data
  • The second section should demonstrate an ability to challenge qualitative assertions by examining the quantitative evidence.
  • The third section should demonstrate a student's ability to effectively represent data in different forms. Students should also explain how different conclusions might be reached depending on the manner in which data is presented.

References and Resources

Primary Sources

Digital Colonial Documents Project (India) Latrobe University: 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901

University of Minnesota (ILL)
Census of India (1911-2001"every ten years)

Secondary Literature

Appadurai, Arjun (1993) "Number in the Colonial Imagination" in Peter van der Veer
and Carol Breckenridge (eds.) Orientalism and the Post-colonial Predicament, University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 314-39.

Cohn, Bernard (1987) "The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia "
in Bernard Cohn (ed.) An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 224-254.

Guha, Summit (2003) "The Politics of Identity and Enumeration in India C. 1600-1990"
Comparative Study of Society and History, Vol. 45, No.1, pp. 148-167.