Census-taking in the Balkans

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
© Hollandse Hoogte / Bert Spiertz
Bosnia and North Macedonia are prospective members of the European Union; Croatia has been a member of the European Union since 2013. On the road towards EU membership, countries must meet particular requirements such as implementation of a national census once every 10 years. Census-taking in these three Balkan countries was analysed by PhD researcher Anna-Lena Hoh, who obtained her doctorate from Maastricht University on this topic.

Traditional census-taking

Censuses are of all times and are still important today, as they describe a country’s population and standard of living. However, countries in western and eastern Europe use different methods for census-taking. Hoh: ‘A major difference is the method of collecting population data. For instance, in the Netherlands and Scandinavia they use register data, which most other countries do not have. In Croatia, Bosnia and North Macedonia, the population census is still carried out in a traditional fashion, using pen and paper. Interviewers go from door to door in order to collect data on the local population.’

Ethnicity, language, religion

Another striking difference according to Hoh is that, in the past, Croatia, Bosnia and North Macedonia have conducted censuses which included collecting data on ethnicity, language and religion: ‘This in spite of the fact that ethnic groups were at war here in the 1990s. But there is still quite some interest in these data in some Balkan countries. Partly, this is because minorities may be able to derive certain rights from the census results. This makes implementation of the census a political issue.’

Knowledge and expertise

Hoh obtained her PhD under the guidance of Prof. Hans Schmeets, endowed professor of Political Science at Maastricht University and programme manager in social statistics at CBS. He has frequently visited the Balkans from 1996 onwards in order to monitor various elections on behalf of OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and is familiar with the regional political relations and sensitivities. What sort of knowledge and expertise did CBS contribute to the dissertation research? Schmeets: ‘My colleague and project leader of the Dutch census Eric Schulte Nordholt has been closely involved with the preparation and execution of censuses in our country for several decades. He also advises other countries on this topic and was able to share his knowledge and experiences with Anna-Lena Hoh. In the preparation of the questionnaires for the quantitative part of Hoh’s study, the expertise of “het vragenlab” (the questionnaire lab) and of Annemieke Luiten of CBS was highly relevant. Moreover, CBS has developed a strategy aimed at boosting the response rate to the survey among census experts.’

Influence of the European Union

The European Union and its enlargement policy influence the implementation of censuses on the Balkans. ‘Croatia, Bosnia and North Macedonia were part of the former Yugoslavia,’ says Hoh. ‘They became independent after the war. These countries are on their way to becoming democracies, but their development is different. While Croatia is considered a democracy, Bosnia and North Macedonia are not as far developed. The EU supports these countries in their democratic development, although this is not always without problems. An example is the census in North Macedonia that was stopped at an early stage, as disagreements arose with regard to the census methodology. Changing the definition of ‘usual residence’ could affect the rights of ethnic minorities, in this case the ethnic Albanians in the country.’

Successful dissertation research

Schmeets is happy with the dissertation research. ‘It’s important for my faculty to conduct more qualitative and quantitative empirical research. Being able to do so through successful dissertation research is a good thing. In addition, we managed to obtain a grant from NWO (the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, tr.) as part of the highly competitive Research Talent Programme. Anna-Lena Hoh turned out to be an eminently suitable candidate for this.’

Title of Anna-Lena Hoh’s dissertation: ‘Counting for EU enlargement? Census-taking in Croatia, Bosnia and North Macedonia’.

A.K.I. Hoh CV and publications