How useful are ethnic classifications?
Whether one can, and whether one should, impose a classification of groups on a complex concept such as ethnicity is a matter for much debate.
Burton, Nandi and Platt (2008)(1) have provided an extensive review of the literature on classifying ethnicity, as well as conducting a consultation for the ethnicity strand of Understanding Society'. They conclude:
'ethnic identity is a multi-dimensional concept and its ideal measure would have to be consistent, reliable as well as capture people's perception of their own ethnic identity. One way forward is to design a multiple response question with different dimensions of ethnicity as response options.'
The charts and tables on these web-pages use the ethnicity classifications of the data sources reported. Inevitably classifications combine together into a single group people of very different heritage and culture. It is widely acknowledged that the 'Black African' group is particularly heterogeneous, as are groups labelled 'mixed' or 'White'. It is also inevitable that the groups used are not necessarily how respondents would wish to represent themselves and will often fail to capture important and distinctive groups. Even where a new category has been introduced to the 2011 Census - for example, 'Romany, Gypsy and Travellers' - this fails to capture the very different heritage and culture of these three groups. A reliance on categorisations can lead to reification of ethnicity and unwarranted assumptions about the role of ethnicity in explaining particular outcomes, for example, unemployment or health.
However, despite their many and obvious failings, ethnic classifications provide a way of highlighting very important differences and inequalities between groups. These inequalities, for example in levels of unemployment, need to be made explicit if they are to be recognised and addressed by policy-makers. However, it is crucial to emphasise that the figures presented on these web-pages should be taken as a starting point for asking much deeper questions about the processes that under-lie the observed differences, rather than an end in themselves. Wherever possible we have provided links to analyses that provide a greater depth of understanding.
Ethnicity questions for Census 2011
Consultation on the 2011 Census questions on ethnicity, identity, religion and language extended over a number of years and involved a very wide range of groups. Five reports, accessed from the link below, record the process of consultation and the varying needs and concerns of users: Consultation on the 2011 census documents(2)
Ethnicity questions for the new Understanding Society survey
Nandi and Platt (2009)(3) describe the process they undertook to develop the ethnicity questions for the Understanding Society survey. This study provides an unprecedented opportunity to explore many different facets of ethnicity, religion and identity in a very detailed way.