Census vs. Survey

What's the Difference?

Census and survey are both methods used to collect data and gather information about a specific population or group. However, there are some key differences between the two. A census aims to collect data from every individual or household within a given population, providing a comprehensive and complete picture of the entire population. On the other hand, a survey collects data from a sample of the population, which is a smaller subset of individuals or households. Surveys are often conducted to gather specific information or opinions on a particular topic, and the results are then extrapolated to make inferences about the larger population. While a census provides more accurate and detailed information, it is also more time-consuming and expensive to conduct compared to a survey.


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DefinitionA complete count of a population or specific group at a particular timeA method of collecting data from a sample of individuals or households to estimate characteristics of a larger population
ScopeUsually covers the entire population or a specific group of interestUsually covers a sample of the population
FrequencyConducted at regular intervals, typically every 10 yearsCan be conducted at various intervals, depending on the purpose
CostGenerally more expensive due to the comprehensive natureUsually less expensive as it involves a smaller sample size
Data AccuracyConsidered highly accurate as it aims to count every individual or householdAccuracy depends on the quality of the sample and the response rate
Data Collection MethodTypically conducted through door-to-door visits, mail, or online formsCan be conducted through various methods such as interviews, questionnaires, or online surveys
Sample SizeIncludes the entire population or a specific groupIncludes a subset of the population
Response RateResponse rate is usually high as participation is mandatory by lawResponse rate can vary depending on the survey design and incentives provided
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Further Detail


When it comes to collecting data for research, decision-making, or policy formulation, two commonly used methods are census and survey. Both census and survey play crucial roles in gathering information about a population, but they differ in various aspects. In this article, we will explore the attributes of census and survey, highlighting their differences and similarities.

Definition and Purpose

A census is a systematic collection of data that aims to gather information about every individual or entity in a given population. It provides a comprehensive snapshot of the entire population, leaving no room for sampling error. On the other hand, a survey is a method of data collection that involves selecting a sample from the population and collecting information from that sample. Surveys are often conducted to estimate characteristics of a larger population based on the responses of a smaller group.

Data Collection Process

One of the key differences between census and survey lies in their data collection processes. Census data is typically collected through a mandatory process, where every individual or entity is required by law to provide the requested information. This ensures a high response rate and minimizes non-response bias. In contrast, surveys rely on voluntary participation, where individuals or entities choose whether or not to respond. This voluntary nature can introduce non-response bias, as those who choose not to participate may have different characteristics than those who do.

Moreover, census data collection is often conducted by government agencies or authorized personnel who visit households or entities to collect the required information. This face-to-face interaction allows for clarification of questions and ensures accurate data collection. Surveys, on the other hand, can be conducted through various methods such as online surveys, telephone interviews, or mail questionnaires. These methods may lack the personal interaction of a census, potentially leading to misunderstandings or incomplete responses.

Sample Size and Representativeness

Another important aspect to consider is the sample size and representativeness of the data collected. Census data aims to cover the entire population, providing a complete picture of the characteristics of every individual or entity. This makes census data highly representative and eliminates sampling error. However, conducting a census can be time-consuming, expensive, and logistically challenging, especially in large populations.

Surveys, on the other hand, select a smaller sample from the population. The sample size is determined based on statistical principles to ensure representativeness. While surveys may introduce sampling error due to the smaller sample size, advanced statistical techniques can be used to estimate population characteristics with a high degree of accuracy. Surveys are often more cost-effective and quicker to conduct compared to a census, making them a popular choice for many research studies and organizations.

Data Accuracy and Reliability

Both census and survey data can provide valuable insights, but their accuracy and reliability can vary. Census data, due to its comprehensive nature, is often considered highly accurate and reliable. Since it covers the entire population, it minimizes the risk of sampling error and provides a complete dataset. However, the accuracy of census data relies on the honesty and accuracy of the respondents, as well as the quality of data collection and processing procedures.

Surveys, on the other hand, can be prone to sampling error, as they rely on a smaller sample of the population. However, with proper sampling techniques and statistical analysis, survey data can still provide reliable estimates of population characteristics. The accuracy of survey data depends on factors such as the representativeness of the sample, the quality of questionnaire design, and the honesty and accuracy of respondents' answers.

Flexibility and Timeliness

Flexibility and timeliness are important considerations when choosing between a census and a survey. Census data collection is typically conducted at fixed intervals, such as every ten years, which may limit its ability to capture real-time changes in the population. However, census data provides a consistent and standardized dataset that allows for long-term trend analysis and comparison across different geographic areas.

Surveys, on the other hand, can be conducted more frequently and provide more timely data. They can be designed to capture specific information at a particular point in time or to track changes over shorter intervals. Surveys offer flexibility in terms of the questions asked, allowing researchers to target specific areas of interest. This flexibility makes surveys a valuable tool for gathering data on emerging trends or issues that require more immediate attention.


In conclusion, both census and survey methods have their own attributes and serve different purposes in data collection. While a census provides a comprehensive snapshot of an entire population, surveys offer flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and timeliness. The choice between a census and a survey depends on the research objectives, available resources, and the need for representativeness. Understanding the differences and similarities between census and survey methods is crucial for researchers, policymakers, and organizations to make informed decisions based on accurate and reliable data.

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