"Hail the Census Night": Trust and Political Imagination in the 1960 Population Census of Ghana

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The article uses the first population census of postcolonial Ghana to analyze the relationship between statistics and the process of imagining the nation-state. In contrast with much historical and sociological literature, which conceptualizes the relationship between census-taking and state formation in terms of identification, classification, and quantification, the departure point of this analysis is the importance of gaining the trust of the counted subjects. In Ghana, where the possibility of obtaining accurate population returns had been severely hindered by people's distrust in the state, the 1960 population census saw the organization of a capillary education campaign in schools and in the press. By dissecting the iconographies emerging from the Census Education and Enlightenment Campaign, the article makes three contributions. First, it shows that understanding the concrete ways in which statistics inform political imagination requires an expansion of the field of observation beyond the statistical machinery and other “centers of calculation.” Second, complementing James Ferguson's understanding of “development discourse” as an “anti-politics machine,” it is argued that the possibility of making the people of Ghana “census minded” depended on the construction of a much richer set of inherently political representations about the nature of the postcolonial state. Finally, it shows the importance of critically interrogating the political implications acquired by the reception of global statistical practices. It does so by documenting the multiple ways in which the international standards promoted by the United Nations became entwined with the transformation of Ghanaian politics through the mobilization of children and press propaganda.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)659-687
Number of pages29
JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
Issue number3
Early online date27 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2018

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