Data collection and publication - ethnic group: guidance

Guidance for public bodies on the collection of data on ethnic group.

Additional guidance for interviewers

Instructions and 'prefer not to say'

Instructions should be given at the beginning of the interview/survey saying why all of the questions are being asked, that they are all voluntary and, if a respondent does not wish to answer any of the questions, they do not have to. This ensures all questions are treated the same.

Testing by the ONS has shown that provision of a 'prefer not to say' option results in an increase in non-responses in telephone/face-to-face interviews. As such the recommendation is that this should only be included in online and paper surveys where refusal is not otherwise possible with the caveat that this may increase the rate of non-response to this question.

If a 'prefer not to say' option is added to this question then it should be added to all questions. In interviewer-led surveys clear instruction at the beginning should advise people that they do not have to answer any question that they do not wish to.

Making changes to the questions and categories

The ethnic group question has been developed to be acceptable to both respondents and users. It is very strongly recommended that you retain it in its entirety and using the exact format.

Presentation of the questions

The words used in the question have been carefully selected to be acceptable so far as possible to respondents, to aid understanding of what is being asked and to provide the most reliable data for users. If the wording is changed then people may not answer or may answer with a less suitable response. The capitalisation and bold font are used to emphasise the instructions and therefore reduce response errors.

Length of the ethnic group question

Due to the complex nature of ethnicity this question is much longer than other survey questions. The number and description of the categories has been selected carefully to best represent the Scottish population and to improve response rates by making the question acceptable to respondents. Removing categories could result in people answering with a less suitable response and your data will not be directly comparable with other information. It may also result in your question being less acceptable to some people and consequently this could affect response rates. We strongly recommend using the full question as it is. If this is not possible, for example, because your survey is very short and cannot be extended or you require information on people not listed then please contact us directly for advice.

Write in boxes

The list of categories is by no means definitive and as a result write in boxes are present in each section and under 'Other' at the end so that people can identify in another way if they wish. These write in boxes are very important to the acceptability of the question. Removing these could have implications for the response rate and acceptability of your survey. Ethnic group is a self-defining concept and people should be able to identify as they wish. We would strongly recommend that you retain them. If resources are not available to process and output the write in responses and you need to reduce their number, please contact us directly for advice.

Single tick response of the ethnic group question

Respondents are requested to answer the ethnic group question with a single response only. It is strongly advised that you adhere to this. The length of the ethnic group question means the number of combinations that could be produced by multiple responses would make it difficult to output usable data and it would be extremely difficult to cross reference ethnic group data with other data (for example on health, education or housing) to obtain information about inequalities.

The Scottish censuses in 2011 and 2001 had single tick responses. If multi tick responses are used, the data will not be comparable with previous census data. Consequently changes over time cannot be explored.

How to deal with multiple ticking of the ethnic group question

Despite respondents being asked to answer the ethnic group question with a single response, inevitably there will be a few who give multiple responses, either within a section or across categories.

Due to the significance of ethnic group data and the small numbers that can be associated with some of the categories in Scotland, it is important that information is available at the most specific level possible. Therefore, the general rule is where more than one box has been ticked the more specific or smaller category should be retained. This will show if a specific ethnic group is more likely to be experiencing discrimination or has specific service needs.

For example, where multiple responses occur:

  • if two non-overlapping responses are given in the same section, the smaller population ticked should be retained
  • if boxes have been ticked in two different sections, then the tick that occurs in the section with the smallest population size should be used
  • if a respondent has ticked a category and then provided a write in response to an 'Other' box, then the write in answer should be used as this information is most likely to reflect their ethnic group
  • if boxes have been ticked in three or more sections the response should be recorded as 'unknown'

Information on population size can be obtained from the NRS website.[13]

If you require help when dealing with multiple responses please contact us directly.

National Identity and Religion

The ethnic group question has been developed so that it can be used as a standalone question, however sometimes it is desirable to collect more specific information on national identity, particularly in relation to 'British' identities.

National identity is a self-defining concept in which a person expresses what country or countries, nation or nations, they feel most connected to and like ethnicity it involves a range of concepts.

Recommended National Identity question

The Scottish Government and NRS developed a national identity question for use in the census alongside the ethnic group question. It is recommended that this question is asked wherever feasible and is asked before the ethnic group question. The census 2022 topic reports on the development of the national identity and ethnic group questions provide more details on the benefits of asking a national identity question.[14] [15] This question remains unchanged from the 2011 question on national identity.

Question: What do you feel is your national identity

Answer: Tick ALL that apply

  • 1. Scottish
  • 2. English
  • 3. Northern Irish
  • 4. Welsh
  • 5. British
  • 8. Other, please write in
  • 9. Refusal (spontaneous only)
  • 10. Prefer not to say (non-interviewer led questionnaires only)

Recommended Religion question

It is recommended that a question on religion should be asked along with the ethnic group question as religion and ethnicity are closely related concepts. In order to get a better understanding of how these two concepts interact, these two questions should be asked and analysed together. It should be noted that this question is voluntary in the census. For more information on asking questions on religion, please refer to the guidance on asking questions on religion.[16]

Question: What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?


  • 1. None
  • 2. Church of Scotland
  • 3. Roman Catholic
  • 4. Other Christian, please write in
  • 5. Muslim, write in denomination or school
  • 6. Hindu
  • 7. Buddhist
  • 8. Sikh
  • 9. Jewish
  • 10. Pagan
  • 11. Another religion or body, please write in
  • 12. Refusal (spontaneous only)
  • 13. Prefer not to say (non-interviewer led questionnaires only)

Data collection method

There are a number of considerations to be made when deciding on the mode of data collection. When a survey is administered by an interviewer, it is important to remind the interviewer to provide the respondents with clear instructions to read or listen to the whole question before answering and to respond with a single answer on the ethnic group question, although multiple responses can be given for the national identity question. Having an interviewer present means that extra guidance can be provided to respondents who are having difficulty understanding the question. If show cards are being used, they should reflect the questions as they are published here, with all the categories and in the same order.

Using a computer, either for self or interviewer completion, can limit the respondent to a single tick for the ethnic group question as the script can be moved to the next question after one box has been completed. When using computers to administer surveys or when employing an internet based survey, it is especially important that the bold font and capitalisation of the question are adhered to.

When conducting a telephone interview, it is important that all the response options are read out before the respondent gives an answer.

For postal surveys and other data collections administered using paper forms, it is important that the form is clearly designed, easy to read and the ethnic group question is presented as published here.

Proxy responses

These questions are designed to collect information on a person's self-defined ethnic group and national identity and should be addressed directly to the respondent. Where the respondent is unable to provide an answer another member of the household, or the person's carer, can be asked to give a response on the respondent's behalf.

This should be a last resort and the interviewer should record that a proxy response was given. It is very important that interviewers, administrative staff or anyone other than the individual's family member or carer does not provide an answer on behalf of the respondent.

The questions were designed and tested with adults, but changes should not be made when asking children. If possible the response should be provided by the child although a proxy response may be needed, especially if they are under the age of 12. Proxy responses should only be accepted from a parent or guardian. Extra guidance may be needed for parents when the child is under 12. If you require help with extra guidance please contact us directly.



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