The Future of Ethnicity Classifications

The Future of Ethnicity Classifications 

Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies
Volume 35, Issue 9
November 2009
pages 1417 – 1435
DOI: 10.1080/13691830903125901

Peter J. Aspinall, Senior Research Fellow
Centre for Health Services Studies (CHSS)
University of Kent

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, ‘diversity’ has emerged as a key value in its own right, celebrated through human rights and similar policies promoting identity and providing an additional focus to that of the more traditional equalities agenda and its concern with ‘statistical proportionality’. It has been conjectured that classifications rooted in diversity policy will either propel data collection practices into the use of finer-grained distinctions or that these measurement systems will collapse under their own weight. In Britain pressure to increase the number of categories in ethnicity classifications highlights the tension between the validity of granular categories and their utility (in terms of practicality of data collection). Similarly, the interest in identity evokes a trade-off between the selective attribution of such measures and the greater stability of operationally defined ethnicity. In meeting the challenge of the diversity agenda, a number of approaches—innovative for Britain—are now being debated to accommodate greater numbers of categories in census collections. These include multi-ticking across categories (thereby capturing multiplicity) and the shift from classifications framed by colour to those privileging ethnic background (but attended by category proliferation). Conceptually, the measurement of the multiple dimensions of ethnicity has found favour but not so far encompassing ethnic origin/ancestry collected in US and Canadian Censuses. While some have argued that ethnicity classifications are already unwieldy and that retrenchment is needed, validity—increasingly insisted upon by the collectivities themselves and other non-state organisations—is seen as winning out. The demands of inclusiveness and identity visibility indicate that classifications are headed in the direction of greater complexity. 

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