Who are the people of Europe? This question can be approached theoretically, as generations of philosophers and social scientists have done, to understand the social and cultural aspects of Europeans as a people. With the support of an ERC Consolidator Grant (2014-19) led by Professor Evelyn Ruppert at Goldsmiths, University of London we are studying this as a practical and political problem of government that is currently facing EU statisticians and policy makers as they grapple with harmonising and standardising enumeration methods and data across member states to make one European population. Yet, by so doing—intentionally or otherwise—they also contribute to the making of a European people. This, at least, is the central thesis of the project, Peopling Europe: How data make a people (ARITHMUS). While typically framed as a methodological or statistical problem, ARITHMUS approaches this as a practical and political problem of assembling multiple national populations into a population and political subjectivity called a European people.

This is both an urgent political and practical problem. Politically, Europe is said to be unable to address itself to a constituted polity and people, which is crucial to European integration. Practically, its efforts to constitute a European population are being challenged by new digital technologies, which are being used to diversify census methods and challenge the comparability of national population data.  Consequently, over the next several years organisations such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), Eurostat and national statistical institutes (NSIs) are engaged in numerous discussions, meetings and negotiations about the 2020 enumerations towards ensuring ‘Europe-wide comparability.’ At the same time they are investigating and experimenting with ‘big data’ generated by social media, mobile positioning, and search engines as alternatives or complementary data sources for measuring variables such as price indices and population movements. While governments have long held a monopoly on the production of large-scale statistics, the private sector is ever more producing data of public interest, value and often at a lower cost.

The project investigates this moment of change in census taking and statistical regimes, arguably the most widespread and fundamental since modern censuses and official statistics were launched over two centuries ago. The project approach is to study this unique moment through a multisited study involving discourse analysis and ethnographic methods to follow the situated practices of EU statisticians as they juggle scientific independence, national autonomy and EU comparability to innovate census methods and official statistics. At the same time it will attend to how these practices enact who are the people of Europe.

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The project is funded from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement no. 615588.