Box 5-1

Ethnographic Research in the Census

Ethnography is a social science research methodology that provides intensive study of particular communities or groups through observational analysis and extensive interviews. The Census Bureau has used ethnography to study coverage in the census since the 1970s, with major efforts associated with the 1990 and 2000 censuses.


The 1990 Ethnographic Evaluation of the Behavioral Causes of Census Undercount studied 29 sites and groups (de la Puente, 1993). By comparison, the 2000 census program of formal experimentation included six ethnographic research projects, focused on: attitudes toward protecting privacy (Gerber, 2003); participation by “Generation X,” persons born between 1968 and 1979 (Crowley, 2003); mobile populations (Hunter et al., 2003); complex households—in particular, on-reservation Navajo Indians, Inupiaq Eskimos, Korean immigrants, Latino immigrants, rural non-Hispanic whites, and blacks in southeastern Virginia (Schwede, 2003); social network tracing of highly mobile people (Brownrigg, 2003); and colonias—poor rural communities near the U.S.-Mexican border (see Box 4-2) (de la Puente and Stemper, 2003). The results of each of the six projects were summarized in one of the Bureau’s evaluation “topic report” series (de la Puente, 2004), and several of the papers are published in revised or extended form in Schwede et al. (2005).


Among the 2000 census ethnographic studies, Schwede (2003) found that examination of “complex households” in six socioeconomic groups highlighted key differences between the Census Bureau’s definition of “household” and the definition envisioned by respondents. For instance, the Census Bureau’s conception of a household as the set of all persons living in one housing unit runs contrary to the experience of Navajo Indians and Inupiaq Eskimos, for whom family ties are more central to the notion of a household than physical location. Members of the family who live at a further distance, in sheep camps, in another housing unit on the reservation, or off the reservation may be considered part of the household if they are contributing to the family’s income or subsistence; conversely, people living in the same housing unit—even if they are related—may not consider themselves part of the same household if they are not pooling incomes or sharing food.


Ethnographic research also suggested a rich set of high-mobility patterns, for economic and other reasons, that complicate the definition of usual residence (Schwede, 2003; Lobo, 2001; Fleisher, 2001):

  • long-distance cyclical mobility to and from Navajo and Inupiaq households for temporary jobs;

  • cross-national cyclical mobility between households in Latin America and Latino households in Virginia for jobs;

  • seasonal cyclical mobility for subsistence activities among the Inupiat or by snowbirds to escape cold winters;

  • mobility for purposes of higher education, found in most of the samples;

  • frequent movement of children for schooling and other purposes (among Navajo and Inupiat households) and for joint custody arrangements (among rural non-Hispanic whites);

  • cyclical movement of elderly persons between their own houses and their relatives’ houses and among households of adult children;

  • sporadic movements of tenuously attached persons; and

  • temporary ad hoc moves of indeterminate length into the houses of sick or elderly relatives who can no longer manage for themselves.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement