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Social Research Programme Research Findings No.20/2005: Ethnic Identity and the Census

DescriptionSummary of research findings into ethnic identity and classifications used by the census
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateJune 23, 2005


    Susie Macdonald, Vanessa Stone, BMRB Social Research
    Rowena Arshad, Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland ( CERES), University of Edinburgh,
    Philomena de Lima UHI PolicyWeb, UHI Millennium Institute

    ISBN 0 7559 4690 1

    This document is also available in pdf format (124k)


    In 2004, the Scottish Executive commissioned research regarding the collection of data on ethnicity in Scotland, with particular reference to the Census. Issues included the representative-ness of the ethnic classifications used by the Census and the relevance of these classifications to those who use Census data. Qualitative methods were used to explore these issues among three types of respondent: stakeholders (those with a special interest), data providers (the general public) and data users (people who collect and analyse ethnicity data).

    Main Findings
    • All three types of respondent recognised a variety of reasons for the collection of ethnicity data by the Census. However, stakeholders believed that current data collection needed to move beyond being a simple compliance exercise. They described the conflation of nationality and ethnicity with skin colour as problematic if not divisive.
    • Data providers and stakeholders perceived there to be a lack of evidence showing how ethnicity data was being used. By contrast, data users described several ways in which they were currently using ethnicity data to improve practice. There was a distinct gap between these two views.
    • Respondents generally agreed that the ethnicity classification used by the Census could be improved to better record diversity. Comments indicated that the 'Other' category could be off-putting for some, but there was a debate over whether a longer list of ethnic categories would be helpful.
    • Respondents recognised the fluidity of concepts like ethnicity and identity, with a number referring to an evolving sense of Scottish-ness and multiple ethnic identities.
    • Various 'facets' of ethnicity were mentioned including nationality, culture, colour, religion, language, and accent. It was clear that nationality played a consistent role in ethnic identity for a number of the respondents. However, the concept of colour was considered problematic by some. In particular, some respondents wanted colour to be either removed completely or as a minimum to be separated from ethnicity in any classifications.

    The Census currently collects data on ethnicity by asking respondents to choose the ethnic background they feel best describes them from a list. However, there has been much debate about the purpose of gathering data on ethnicity. Issues include the use of terms such as 'black' and 'white'; inconsistencies in category descriptions; and the representation of different communities, particularly smaller communities. Margaret Curran, former Minister for Communities, committed to re-evaluate ethnicity classifications to ensure that they reflect the diversity of Scotland's population, and to gather more meaningful information to better promote race equality. In 2004 a collaborative team from BMRB Social Research, CERES, University of Edinburgh and UHI PolicyWeb was commissioned to carry out research with a view to exploring these issues among both data providers and data users.

    Aims and Objectives

    The overall aim of the research was to inform the development of a classification of ethnic identity; ideally one that would meet a variety of needs. Consequently, the research needed to explore how individuals ('data providers') would wish to classify their ethnic identity whilst looking at the informational needs of those using such data ('data users'). One option would be for the question on ethnicity as it appears in the 2001 Census form to not change at all.

    Research Design

    There were three stages of research. Firstly, face-to-face and telephone depth interviews were carried out with 11 stakeholders - respondents with a special interest in the ethnicity of the Scottish population. Secondly, face-to-face paired depth interviews were carried out with 12 data users. These interviews investigated the ways in which data users collect and use ethnicity data, and their reasons for doing so. Thirdly, face-to-face depth interviews and mini focus groups were held with 39 data providers. This research stage asked members of the public to discuss how they define themselves ethnically, why and when they might define themselves differently, and their views on how ethnicity is classified in the Census. Research was carried out at locations across Scotland.


    The Views of Stakeholders

    • Stakeholders thought that existing Census data on ethnicity might be better used than it is at present, for instance, to improve access to public services. For example, they called for more detailed, local and up-to-date data to be made available as a supplement to Census data. There was a desire for larger bodies to share data on ethnicity with smaller agencies.
    • They expressed a need to connect data from the Census with other sources, so that ethnicity could be linked to other variables like language and religion.
    • The ethnic classifications currently used in the Census were described as confusing, inconsistent and inaccurate. They were considered to hide the real diversities within Scotland and prevent people making their ethnicities or 'Scottish-ness' explicit if they so wished. The classifications did little to promote community cohesion and minority ethnic groups were effectively marginalised.
    • Concerns were expressed over the 'other' category in the Census. This was imagined to encompass a very wide range of ethnicities and to relegate new ethnic communities. It was also believed that data collected in this category was not being fully used to refine future classifications or address needs.
    • Stakeholders suggested that that the Census should include a section on language used beyond Gaelic, particularly to include community languages. It was felt that differences between the descriptions of identity of older and younger people from minority ethnic groups could be better accounted for.
    • Stakeholders advised that the concept of colour linked with ethnicity or nationality be removed. They viewed the crude dichotomy of White/Black as unacceptable, and advised that those working on the Census might wish to explore the inclusion of a question on colour in its own right.
    • In relation to ethnicities, they suggested that broad regional categories such as European, Asian and African could be used. When linked with additional questions, this would allow multiple identities to be expressed and diversity within the existing 'white' category to be unpacked.
    • Stakeholders agreed that Scotland needed to have its own national ethnicity statistics, but that these should be comparable with data from elsewhere in the UK.

    The Views of Data Users

    • Data users described various ways in which they used ethnicity data which included compliance with legislation; monitoring for discrimination; devising policies to promote equal opportunities; tailoring services; raising awareness; targeting resources and responding to requests from other organisations.
    • Confidentiality of data providers was of key importance, but if this was assured, there was nothing to suggest that data users would be averse to sharing data.
    • Generally, data users thought that current ethnicity classifications were useful but could be improved. However, many were uncertain about best practice and were keen to see the findings from this study.
    • Data users expressed specific needs regarding current ethnic classifications including: a better understanding of white minority ethnic groups; a review of the 'other category'; an extension of the list of categories; a review of the relationship between ethnicity, colour, nationality and religion; and greater flexibility.
    • Data users provided a range of suggestions for improving the Census. For example, they advised that the Census take a tiered or nested approach, that special care was taken to allow for comparability over time, and steps be taken to separate nationality from ethnicity.

    The Views of Data Providers

    • Data providers defined ethnicity in terms of background or identity. It was clear that many had not considered the issue of how to define ethnicity in any great depth before. Consequently, their thoughts developed over the course of the interview.
    • Respondents generally related ethnicity to nationality rather than to race or colour. Religion, accent, culture and language could also have a bearing, but this was variable.
    • The concept of 'colour' was a contentious issue for some respondents. Some saw colour as part of their ethnic identity. Others felt strongly that colour should not be linked to ethnicity, and that to do so could be misleading and stigmatise people.
    • Generally, data providers described themselves as having multiple ethnic identities with various reference points including their parents' ethnicity and country of origin, where they were born or brought up, where they currently lived, their passport and religion.
    • The fact that data providers referred to a wide variety of descriptions underlined the complexity of trying to establish any kind of ethnicity framework. Some data providers found the 2001 Census categories did match the way in which they wished to describe their ethnicity, but others found that the categories did not capture the level of specificity they wanted or needed.
    • Many data providers commented that they way in which they referred to their ethnicity was unchanging. However, a few respondents described developing a sense of increased Scottish-ness over time.

    Questions for the future

    • How can the purpose of questions on ethnicity be more clearly communicated to members of the public in Scotland?
    • How can information about the way in which ethnicity data is used enhance quality of provision for Scotland's diverse populations be better disseminated without compromising matters of confidentiality?
    • What mechanisms should be in place to enable data collated by the Census to be used more extensively to meet the diverse needs of communities at national and local levels?
    • What mechanisms need to be in place to assist those who have a difficulty (e.g. literacy or language issues) to fill in forms such as the Census?
    • How should issues of colour, nationality and ethnicity in ethnicity question frameworks be disentangled?
    • Is the Census the correct vehicle to monitor colour discrimination? If yes, can ways be suggested in which a question on colour might be included?
    • Should the section on language be extended to record languages spoken in Scotland?

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