The fascinating three-thousand-year history of the census, revealing why the true boundaries of today’s nations aren’t lines on a map, but columns in a census tabulation.
“A lively and enlightening history of the census… an entertaining and informative story, more about society than statistics.”
— The Economist
“Whitby’s vigorous style, fine story-telling, and detailed knowledge combine to form a riveting narrative.”
— David Spiegelhalter,
author of The Art of Statistics
In April 2020, the United States will embark on what has been called “the largest peacetime mobilization in American history”: the decennial population census. It is part of a tradition of counting people that goes back at least three millennia and now spans the globe.
In The Sum of the People, data scientist Andrew Whitby traces the remarkable history of the census, from ancient China and the Roman Empire, through revolutionary America and Nazi-occupied Europe, to the steps of the Supreme Court.
Marvels of democracy, instruments of exclusion, and, at worst, tools of tyranny and genocide, censuses have always profoundly shaped the societies we’ve built. Today, as we struggle to resist the creep of mass surveillance, the traditional census—direct and transparent—may offer the seeds of an alternative.
Preorder now for March 31st
“When we hear census, we think of numbers and statistics. But Andrew Whitby shows that the history of the census is an amazingly fascinating and illuminating story, and in The Sum of the People, he tells that story eloquently and persuasively. A real page-turner!“
— Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, coauthor of Big Data
“In The Sum of the People, Andrew Whitby tells a gripping tale of humanity, civilization, and power. If you never imagined that a book about the census and the statisticians who conduct it could be a page-turner, think again. At a time when the need for the census is being challenged amid a tide of online big data, this book is also a deeply thought-provoking read.”
— Diane Coyle, author of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History and Bennett Professor of Public Policy, University of Cambridge
“Humans spend much effort counting themselves. Always have, always will. Why? To control, conscript, and tax; but, then, also to hold accountable the powerful people who control, conscript, and tax. Andrew Whitby, alert to this duality, instructs and entertains as he brilliantly travels across the census landscape. Literally, a tour de force.”
— Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs, Columbia University, and former director of the US Census Bureau
“This is a wonderful book. The history of the census may not at first appear to be a particularly hot topic, but Andrew Whitby’s vigorous style, fine story-telling, and detailed knowledge combine to form a riveting narrative. Who would have thought that simply counting people could be such a deeply contested issue?”
— David Spiegelhalter, author of The Art of Statistics
Press and reviews
- Marketplace Morning Report (April 3)
- a longer cut of the interview, including an excerpt.
- WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show
- John Donahue interviewed me on WAMC’s The Roundtable.
- Marcus Smith interviewed me on BYUradio’s Constant Wonder
- Jill Erickson of Falmouth Public Library gave the book a shout out on WCAI’s What’s on Your Bookshelf (at about 31:30 – 35:30)
- Sidewalk Labs’ Sidewalk Weekly discussed the Wired excerpt
- Marc Bernier show (April 3) [not available online]
- Significance Magazine interview
- The Economist titled their review “A lively and enlightening history of the census” (in print “The Big Ask”)
- Jill Lepore asks in The New Yorker, “Will this Year’s Census be the Last?”
- Lyman Stone’s review in The Wall Street Journal: “an excellent primer on the history of census-taking, achieving the rare combination of offering appealing writing for nonexperts and high-quality research for specialists.”
- Brian Maye’s short review in the Irish Times: “well-written and readable.”
- Reed Tucker explains in the New York Post “Why filling out the 2020 Census is more important than you think.” (March 29)
- Smithsonian Magazine included the book in a round-up of new books and also published a longer interview
- Christopher Adams’s review in the Winnipeg Free Press: “a fascinating history of the census…a highly readable, well-written account”
- David Miller’s review in Library Journal: “timely and eye-opening”
- Michelle Ross’s review in Booklist: “a shockingly captivating history of the census”
- Review in Publisher’s Weekly: “timely”
- Diane Coyle’s full review: “genuinely a page-turner from the first page of the Preface on”
- David Boaz mentions the book in his Cato Institute blog “The Census is Too Intrusive”
- Medium.com’s Sarah Begley interviewed me, mostly on how COVID is affecting the US census.
- Michael Todd of Social Science Space interviewed me.
Reader reviews via Goodreads.
Excerpts and essays
- “A Brief History of the Census—and How Covid-19 Could Change It” in Wired
- “Filling Out a Census Has Always Been a Political Act” on Time.com
- “A once-in-a-century pandemic collides with a once-in-a-decade census” at Brookings Institution’s Future Development blog
- April 22 6pm ET—Boston Athenaeum—recording to come soon
About the author
Andrew Whitby is an economist and data scientist with a PhD in econometrics from the University of Oxford. Most recently, he worked in the development data group of the World Bank, where he was coeditor of the Atlas of the Sustainable Development Goals. He lives in Brooklyn.