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“Filling in the Gaps”: Investigating Civil Society Organizations' Role in the 2020 United States Census

Thu, October 7, 1:20 to 2:50pm EDT (1:20 to 2:50pm EDT), 4S 2021 Virtual, 7


The decennial Census is among the most complex technoscientific projects undertaken by the federal government of the United States. Data collected through this process are not only the basis for the appointment of political power and the disbursement of federal monies but also inform the activities of many governmental and non-governmental agencies. But census data – like all data – are the result of social processes. Moreover, census stakeholders, from partisan agents to civil society organizations, are keenly aware of the contingency of census data and have often sought to shape the process (and its outcomes) to advance their interests, noble or not. For example, members of Census Counts – an ad hoc network of civil society organizations acting in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau – have played an active role in the 2020 decennial census, seeking, in their words, to deliver a “fair and accurate” count.

Drawing on participant observation and 42 semi-structured interviews with Census Counts and other census stakeholders, we describe (1) how these organizations understood concepts of “fairness” and “accuracy” and (2) how those understandings informed their attempts to remake, repair, supplement, and, in some cases, subvert the data infrastructure envisioned by the Census Bureau. In describing the complex, contested, and often contradictory relationships and imaginaries among Census Counts and the Census Bureau, we develop the concept of “gap work”: a dual process by which (data) infrastructural stakeholders construct an (as of yet) unrealized “whole” and then undertake efforts to fill in the perceived “gaps” in that whole.