Classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom

A number of different systems of classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom exist. These schemata have been the subject of debate, including about the nature of ethnicity, how or whether it can be categorised, and the relationship between ethnicity, race, and nationality.

National statistics

The ethnic group question used in the 2011 census in England. In Wales, "Welsh" and "English" were listed in the opposite order of the "White" column. The options in Scotland and Northern Ireland were slightly different to those in England and Wales.[1]
The ethnic group question used in the 2011 census in Scotland.

History and debate

The 1991 UK census was the first to include a question on ethnicity.[2] Field trials had started in 1975 to establish whether a question could be devised that was acceptable to the public and would provide information on race or ethnicity that would be more reliable than questions about an individual's parents' birthplaces. A number of different questions and answer classifications were suggested and tested, culminating in the April 1989 census test. The question used in the later 1991 census was similar to that tested in 1989,[3] and took the same format on the census forms in England, Wales and Scotland. However, the question was not asked in Northern Ireland. The tick-boxes used in 1991 were "White", "Black-Caribbean", "Black-African", "Black-Other (please describe)", "Indian", "Pakistani", "Bangladeshi", "Chinese" and "Any other ethnic group (please describe)".[4]

Sociologist Peter J. Aspinall has categorised what he regards as a number of "persistent problems with salient collective terminology". These problems are ambiguity in respect of the populations that are described by different labels, the invisibility of white minority groups in official classifications, the acceptability of the terms used to those that they describe, and whether the collectivities have any substantive meaning.[5]

A number of academics have pointed out that the ethnicity classification employed in the census and other official statistics in the UK since 1991 involve confusion between the concepts of ethnicity and race.[6][7] David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel argue that this is the case in many censuses, and that "the case of Britain is illuminative of the recurring failure to distinguish race from ethnicity".[7] Aspinall notes that sustained academic attention has been focused on "how the censuses measure ethnicity, especially the use of dimensions that many claim have little to do with ethnicity, such as skin colour, race, and nationality".[8]

In 2007, Simpson and Bola Akinwale also studied the stability of individuals' responses to ethnic group questions between the 1991 and 2001 census. They concluded that the membership of the "White" category was stable, whereas 7–9 per cent of those in the "Asian" group and 23 per cent of both the "Caribbean" and the "African" group in 1991 had switched to another group by 2001. They suggested that conscious changes in affiliation explained little of this instability, whereas unreliability of the question was significant, partly due to the ambiguous nature of the categories used and partly due to imprecision in the imputation of missing values.[9]

It has also been argued that the wording of the ethnicity question in the 2001 census, "What is your ethnic group?", embodies "an essential being ethnic" as opposed to "a constructed belonging to an ethnicity".[10] The latter would be reflected in a question such as "choose one box to best describe your ethnic group", which was subsequently added in the 2011 census.[8] Sociologist Steven Vertovec argues that "much public discourse and service provision is still based on a limited set of Census categories", and that "these categories do not begin to convey the extent and modes of diversity existing within the population today".[11]

User consultation undertaken by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the purpose of planning the 2011 census in England and Wales found that most of the respondents from all ethnic groups that took part in the testing felt comfortable with the use of the terms "Black" and "White". However, some participants suggested that these colour terms were confusing and unacceptable, did not adequately describe an individual's ethnic group, did not reflect his or her true skin colour, and were stereotypical and outdated terms. The heading "Black or Black British", which was used in 2001, was changed to "Black/African/Caribbean/Black British" for the 2011 census. As with earlier censuses, individuals who did not identify as "Black", "White" or "Asian" could instead write in their own ethnic group under "Other ethnic group". Persons with multiple ancestries could indicate their respective ethnic backgrounds under a "Mixed or multiple ethnic groups" tick box and write-in area.[12]

Between 2004 and 2008, the General Register Office for Scotland (GOS) conducted official consultation, research and question testing for the purpose of planning the 2011 Scottish census, with key evidence informing the new classification drawn from similar workshops carried out by the Office for National Statistics, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). The GOS found that "Black" was a polarising term for many focus group participants and interviewees. Some participants opposed the use of such terms, while others supported them. Opposition to the term "Black" was strongest among individuals originating from ethnic groups in Africa and the Caribbean, especially the former. The main reasons cited for this opposition were that racial terms like "Black" and "White" were invalid, socially constructed concepts not based on empirical reality; that skin colour was distinct from ethnicity; that the "Black" and "White" categories from the earlier 2001 census were inconsistent with the "Asian" categories, thereby resulting in an unfair, double standard; and that the positioning of the "White" category atop the "non-White" categories implied a racial hierarchy, with "White" at the top. To redress this, the GOS established new, separate "African, African Scottish or African British" and "Caribbean, Caribbean Scottish or Caribbean British" tick boxes for individuals from Africa and the Caribbean, respectively, who did not identify as "Black, Black Scottish or Black British". It found that most testing participants thereafter chose to tick "African" or "Caribbean" instead of "Black". In the write-in area, they also noted their own respective ethnic groups, with few opting to write-in "Black". Additionally, individuals who did not identify as "Black", "White" or "Asian" could write in their own ethnic group under "Other ethnic group". Persons with multiple ancestries could indicate their respective ethnic backgrounds under a "Mixed or multiple ethnic groups" write-in area.[13]

There were calls for the 2011 national census in England and Wales to include extra tick boxes so people could identify their ethnic group in category A as English, Welsh and Cornish.[14][15] The tick boxes at the time only included "British", Irish or any other. Some experts, community and special interest group respondents also pointed out that the 'Black African' category was too broad. They remarked that the category did not provide enough information on the considerable diversity that existed within the various populations currently classified under this heading. This concealed heterogeneity ultimately made the gathered data of limited use analytically. To remedy this, the Muslim Council of Britain proposed that this census category should be broken down instead into specific ethnic groups.[16] The National Association of British Arabs (NABA) and other Arab organisations also lobbied for the inclusion of a separate "Arab" entry, which would include under-reported groups from the Arab world such as Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis and Maghrebis.[17] NABA reasoned that "lack of recognition of Arabs as a separate ethnic group, and hence their exclusion, has serious consequences for the planning of services and monitoring of such problems as racial discrimination".[18] The specimen 2011 Census questions were published in 2009 and included new "Gypsy or Irish Traveller" and "Arab" categories.[19] The final version of the census form included tick-boxes for "Gypsy or Irish Traveller" under the "White" heading, and "Arab" under the "Other ethnic group" heading.[20][21] However, in the ONS's testing in England and Wales prior to the census, no Kurdish, Iranian, Berber, Somali or Egyptian participants chose to identify as Arab.[22]

Discussing the inclusion of nationalities such as "British" and "Irish" in the ethnic group categories of the census, Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson argue that "on purely technical grounds, this is a mistake, confirmed by enumerators reporting that some Asian respondents had ticked 'British', having seen it as the first box and wishing to confirm their British identity and nationality".[23] Samira Shackle, writing in the New Statesman, argues that "the fact that hundreds of thousands choose to describe their own ethnicity as Welsh, Scottish, or Cornish shows that 'ethnic British' is a nebulous concept".[18]


The ethnicity data used in UK national statistics relies on individuals' self-definition. The Office for National Statistics explain this as follows:

Is a person's ethnic group self-defined?

Yes. Membership of an ethnic group is something that is subjectively meaningful to the person concerned, and this is the principal basis for ethnic categorisation in the United Kingdom. So, in ethnic group questions, we are unable to base ethnic identification upon objective, quantifiable information as we would, say, for age or gender. And this means that we should rather ask people which group they see themselves as belonging to.[24]

This self-defined categorisation was also used for classifying ethnicity in the 2001 UK Census.[25] Slightly different categories were employed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as compared with England and Wales, "to reflect local differences in the requirement for information".[26] However, the data collected still allow for comparison across the UK.[26] Different classifications were used in the 1991 Census, which was the first to include a question on ethnicity.[27][28]

Ethnicity categories

The following are the options the ONS currently recommends for ethnicity surveys:[29]

England and Wales Northern Ireland Scotland
English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British Scottish
Other British
Gypsy or Irish traveller Irish Traveller Gypsy or Irish Traveller
Any other White background, please describe Any other White ethnic group, please describe
Mixed / multiple ethnic groups Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups
White and Black Caribbean
White and Black African
Any other Mixed / Multiple ethnic background, please describe Any Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups, please describe
Asian / Asian British Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British
Indian Indian, Indian Scottish or Indian British
Pakistani Pakistani, Pakistani Scottish or Pakistani British
Bangladeshi Bangladeshi, Bangladeshi Scottish or Bangladeshi British
Chinese Chinese, Chinese Scottish or Chinese British
Any other Asian, please describe
Black / African / Caribbean / Black British
African African
African, African Scottish or African British
Any other African, please describe
Caribbean Caribbean or Black
Caribbean, Caribbean Scottish or Caribbean British
Black, Black Scottish or Black British
Any other Black / African / Caribbean background, please describe Any other Caribbean or Black, please describe
Other ethnic group
Arab Arab, Arab Scottish or Arab British
Any other ethnic group, please describe

In addition to the above "tick-box" options, respondents can also make use of the "please describe" options, also known as "write-in" answers. To do this, they would have to select one of the "any other" tick-boxes on the census form and write in their answer in the box provided.[29]

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