The contentious politics of the census in consociational democracies (Feb 2017 - Jan 2019)

Lead academic: Dr Laurence Cooley (

Academic partners: Professor Stefan Wolff (University of Birmingham) and Dr Ian Shuttleworth (Queen's University Belfast) (project mentors)

Non-academic partners: Dr Valery Perry (Democratization Policy Council, Bosnia and Herzegovina) (project partner)

Funder and funding: ESRC Future Research Leaders (£93,894)


In societies that are emerging from violent conflict between different national, ethnic, religious or linguistic groups, peace is often maintained through an agreement that these groups will share power. One of the main ways in which agreement on such power sharing (also known as consociationalism) is reached is through the proportional allocation of roles in government, the civil service, the military and the police to members of the groups that have been in conflict. In order to assess what such proportionality looks like, though, an accurate census is required. The process of conducting a census in this context can be particularly challenging, especially when group leaders know that their share of political power is partly dependent on the results. This can result in intense debates about how census questions are worded, and the conduct of the census itself may be affected by campaigns to get respondents to answer questions in particular ways, in the belief that this will influence their political representation.

Project aims

The project explored the relationship between the design of political institutions and the likelihood of the census becoming the subject of contentious political debates – a relationship that has thus far received little attention from scholars. The project’s primary objectives were to generate a body of scholarship on the relationship between the design of political institutions and the politics of the census in deeply divided societies, and to generate knowledge on ways to mitigate the possibility of contentious debates about the census in those societies. The research was primarily qualitative in nature and involved comparative analysis of four societies that have experienced varying degrees of contestation around the census: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kenya, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. In designing and conducting the project, Laurence worked with policy-makers and practitioners in order to ensure that the findings had a positive societal impact through the development of a better understanding of how tensions caused by the holding of a census in a divided society can be alleviated or avoided.


Cooley, L. (in press) "It will do no more than annoy the protestants": The 1991 Northern Ireland census and the Irish language', Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, advance access, doi: 10.1080/13537113.2022.2052594

Balaton-Chrimes, S. and Cooley, L. (in press) 'To count or not to count? Insights from Kenya for global debates about enumerating ethnicity in national censuses', Ethnicities, advance access, doi: 10.1177/14687968211056379

Cooley, L. (2021) 'What will – and won't – the 2021 census tell us about Northern Ireland's future?', Northern Slant, 15 March 2021

Cooley, L. (2021) 'Census politics in Northern Ireland from the Good Friday Agreement to Brexit: Beyond the "sectarian headcount"?', British Journal of Politics and International Relations 23(3), pp. 451-70, doi: 10.1177/1369148120959045

Cooley, L. (2020) 'Consociationalism and the politics of the census in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Ireland', Political Geography 82: 102248, doi: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2020.102248

Cooley, L. (2020) 'Census politics in deeply divided societies', in Richmond, O. and Visoka, G. (eds.) The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-11795-5_19-2

Cooley, L. (2019) 'To be a Bosniak or to be a citizen? Bosnia and Herzegovina's 2013 census as an election', Nations and Nationalism 25(3), pp. 1065-86, doi: 10.1111/nana.12500

Cooley, L. (2018) 'A political count: Looking ahead to the 2021 census', Northern Slant, 5 July 2018

Cooley, L. (2018) 'Keeping politics out of the census is much harder than it sounds', The Conversation, 4 April 2018

'The politics of the census in consociational democracies', IDD Blog, 12 September 2016

Cooley, L. and Mujanović, J. (2016) 'Population politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A reply to Bochsler and Schläpfer', Ethnopolitics 15(5), pp. 487-92, doi: 10.1080/17449057.2016.1190159

You can also join the conversation about the project and the broader topic of census politics on Twitter, using the hashtag #censuspolitics.

Download research brief: Census politics in deeply divided societies

More information

For further information about this project please contact: Dr Laurence Cooley, email: