Ethnic minorities: defining ethnicity and race

Ethnic minorities: defining ethnicity and race

The Scottish Public Health Observatory
Ethnic Minorities
Last Updated: 2012-03-06


Ethnicity has been defined as:

“the social group a person belongs to, and either identifies with or is identified with by others, as a result of a mix of cultural and other factors including language, diet, religion, ancestry and physical features traditionally associated with race”. (1)

Ethnicity is essentially self-defined and may change over time. Classification of ethnicity is essentially pragmatic, based on categories that include common self-descriptions, are acceptable to respondents and that identify variations that are important for research or policy. There is increasing recognition that people may want to identify themselves with more than one ethnic group, and the “mixed” category introduced in the UK 2001 Census attempts to do this. The standard classification of ethnic group in the UK is that used in the 2011 Census (which was slightly different in each of the four countries of the UK). Ethnicity is different from country of origin, since many countries include more than one ethnic group.


The concept of race is controversial. It is difficult to define a rationale for racial categories and there is no consistent agreement about an objective set of categories. Classifying individuals by their physical appearance and skin colour is unreliable and of questionable validity. Genetic studies have found some evidence of broad “continental” groups which are genetically similar.(2,3) However, there is little evidence that these correspond to commonly perceived racial categories.(4) There is wider genetic variation between individuals within one “racial” group (such as “white”) than there is between such “racial” groups (5)—indeed 93% to 95% of genetic variation is within population groups. Despite these difficulties, the term race is still widely used in legal and policy contexts…

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