Detail from "the second line," a painting by Bob Graham. For more about the artist, click here.

Online Program

Interlocking Invisibilities: How Illiteracy, Age, and Identity Affect Census taking

Isabel Fêo Rodrigues, Umass Dartmouth 
*Stephen Lubkemann, U.S. Census Bureau 

Keywords: Census, language, illiteracy, identity

Ideally, linguistic and cultural fluency offers researchers a privileged stance from which to dig into deep structures of meanings, unravel symbolic nuances, and uncover the minutia of daily life. This fluency is indispensible not only to obtain solid data but also to craft the “thick description” expected of monographs. But as we approach working class immigrant populations in post-industrial urban US, are these attributes of linguistic and cultural fluency enough to build rapport with reluctant research participants? Furthermore, is reliance on notions of cultural and linguistic competence sufficient to reach populations that have been simultaneously rendered structurally marginalized and discursively invisible? This paper engages these questions by focusing on the intersections of aging and illiteracy among monolingual Portuguese speakers who see themselves as a largely invisible urban “ethnicity”.

This research was integrated into the multilingual research project entitled “Observing Census Enumeration of Non-English-speaking Households in the 2010 Census” funded by the US Census Bureau. The project entailed the observation of census enumeration in order to discern to what extent language constituted a barrier to census data collection. Additionally, the research also entailed follow up interviews and focus groups conducted in Portuguese. Nevertheless, all experienced difficulties in eliciting answers from monolingual illiterate participants who did not see the point of participating in a national census.

Furthermore, the very process of asking questions, and eliciting participation in one’s research agenda presupposes consent. Hence, more creative field strategies are needed to reach immigrant elderly populations entrapped by urban poverty.

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