I first became alerted to the fluidity of definitions back in the seventies. After one of the OPEC embargoes, the price of oil went through the roof. In the following census, a couple of Native American tribes showed an increase in population of more than a hundred percent, an impossible fecundity. How were these issues related? Price of oil goes up. Several Native American tribes had reservation land that included oil production. The proceeds of that oil production was distributed to enrolled members. When the value of the oil went up, people who did not otherwise identify as Native American but did in fact have that heritage, enrolled as was their prerogative in order to benefit from the windfall. And thus the census numbers went up with no change in the underlying reality of people.
This is brought to mind by a recent post, Pew Study: 27% of Jewish Children Live in Orthodox Homes by David Bernstein. I have read elsewhere of this study and there apparently was an awful lot of interesting discussion regarding definitions (Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, etc.). Notice the last sentence, though, in this post:
But with being Jewish no longer a substantial disadvantage in American life, and intermarriage unlikely in non-Orthodox circles to lead to serious family disruption, the new Pew study finds hundreds of thousands of children of intermarriage identify as Jews of no religion (and about as many as Jews by religion), hundreds of thousands of others who were raised Jewish but don’t consider themselves such but who acknowledge their Jewish ancestry, and, a bit weirdly, hundreds of thousands of additional individuals who have no Jewish ancestry and who have never converted but for whatever reason consider themselves to be Jewish.I love that; "a bit weirdly, hundreds of thousands of additional individuals who have no Jewish ancestry and who have never converted but for whatever reason consider themselves to be Jewish." Among other things it is a very loud call to be cautious about survey data. It is not always telling us what we thinking it is saying, no matter how rigorous and effectively it might have been administered. Several hundred thousand people claiming a heritage that in no other context would people recognize, is just plain fascinating. People are people no matter our measures and averages.