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The Classification of Ethnic Groups

The recommended output classification of ethnic groups for National Statistics data sources will change in 2001 to be broadly in line with the 2001 Census. Developing such a standard classification is a difficult exercise, reflecting the different - and sometimes contradictory - objectives of the classification. For example, there are strong arguments in favour of retaining the 1991 Census-based classification at least until the end of 2001-02; equally there are arguments for promulgating a classification now which fits closely with the 2001 Census immediately. On balance, comparability with the 2001 Census is the most important factor. However, classifications are never set in stone, and we recognise that further research is needed to improve our understanding of a range of related issues, such as language and religion. For this reason we are promulgating this only as an interim standard until we have undertaken this further research in consultation with a range of experts. Details of this new interim National Statistics classification for presenting data, and the rationale for choosing it, are given below.

National Statistics interim standard classification of ethnic groups data

The aim has been to generate a classification that meets a range of user needs and Census comparability as far as possible, while allowing for the practical data collection differences between the Census and surveys and administrative sources (e.g. Census completion is mandatory whereas surveys depend on respondent co-operation). As such, the interim classification is based around the two dimensions of ethnic and national group data.

In the ethnic group dimension there are two levels. Level 1 is a coarse classification into 5 main ethnic groups. Level 2 nests within Level 1, and provides a finer classification. This approach is designed to meet a range of user needs and to be as compatible as possible with the classifications proposed for Census outputs. The categories support broad if varying degrees of comparability with the Censuses of the different countries of the United Kingdom (which differ in the categories used), allowing commensurate comparability at the Great Britain and UK levels. In general the preference is for Level 2 (detailed) categories to be adopted wherever possible. The two levels and the categories are indicated below.

In addition to these categories, there are clear user needs for data about 'White-Irish', for example to inform distinct service and policy needs on health and housing issues. There is also some interest in other UK national identities. In recognition of these requirements, and after testing and consultation with experts, the Office for National Statistics recommends a second dimension, of national group information. This would be collected from all data source respondents. It would enable users to analyse the White-Irish, for example, by analysing respondents who classify themselves as White and as Irish. The national categories tested and proposed are English; Scottish; Welsh; Irish; British and Other.

In addition to presenting the overall results from the national group question, analyses of the national group data of particular ethnic groups could also be presented according to user needs. For example, particular analyses could be presented for respondents who classify themselves as White and as Scottish, Welsh etc. This output approach to national group data, using the example of the White group, is indicated below, presented beside the ethnic group classification.


National Statistics interim standard classifications for presenting ethnic and national groups data


 (example  presentation)

 White ethnic  group
 Not stated

 All ethnic  groups
 (including  whites)

 Not stated




Level 1 Level 2
  Other White background
  All White groups
White and Black Caribbean
White and Black African
White and Asian
Other Mixed background
All Mixed groups
Other Asian background
All Asian groups
Other Black background
All Black groups
Other ethnic group
  All Chinese or Other groups

* Given the accepted need to present White-Irish in National Statistics analyses about ethnic minority differences, such presentations will include the category 'White-Irish' in Level 2 analyses, between the British and Other White categories. A footnote is therefore required to clearly indicate that estimates of the White-Irish are derived by co-analysing respondents who chose the 'Irish' category in the national group question, with those who identified themselves as 'White' in the ethnic group question.


The data on other national groups (Scottish, Welsh etc) can be presented as required, but are likely to be of particular interest in geographically disaggregated outputs.

More generally, the preference is for outputs to be as detailed as possible. However, it is recognised that sample constraints for some data sources necessitate flexibility in outputs. As such, a mixture of Levels 1 and 2 for outputs may be used where there is a need to identify particular groups from Level 2 (e.g. Chinese) but data will only support Level 1 categories for the other groups. However, any mixture of Levels 1 and 2 must ensure consistency with at least Level 1 categories (e.g. contain a 'Chinese or other ethnic groups' entry in the output as well as the more detailed 'Chinese' category). In exceptional cases a binary classification (e.g. White and non-White) may be employed for outputs where this is all that can be supported by sources (e.g. where there is a very small proportion of non-Whites in the local population).

Outputs will need to be supported by appropriate meta-data. Details about the context in which the data are collected - for example, in person or by telephone, the list and order of categories used, and the geographical level at which it was collected (important for comparability with the Census where questions differ between countries of the UK) - will help users comparing data from more than one source to make judgements about the quality and consistency of the different sources. ONS will offer such meta-data and user guidance on this web site in due course.



Although the standard classification relates to the way in which data are presented (as outputs), it has some implications for the ways in which data are captured (inputs). ONS has undertaken a programme of question testing on the Omnibus Survey to develop questions that generate data to populate the NS interim classification of outputs. The questions at the end of this statement represent the preferred question portfolio for generating these data.

It is recommended that regular government surveys adopt at least the most detailed level for data collection (inputs), even if the survey sample is too small to produce reliable national estimates. This will enable more extensive use to be made of the data - for example adding survey years together. In general the preference is for Level 2 (detailed) categories to be adopted in data collection.

Notwithstanding the recommendation that as much detail as possible is collected, it is accepted that there may be special cases where flexibility in applying the input classification is required. Data source managers (e.g. for smaller research projects) are encouraged to use their professional judgement about adopting the level 1 (less detailed) classification for inputs where it is clear that it would be inappropriate to use the more detailed level. Advice to data source managers about amendments to the recommended questions can be given on a case by case basis as necessary.


Len Cook, the National Statistician, recognises the substantial complexities surrounding the classification of ethnic identity. The challenge he sees is to balance several different objectives:

- comparability between the Census and other data sources;
- capturing the increasing diversity of ethnicity due to inter-ethnic family formation and migration patterns;
- consistency over time to facilitate analysis of trends and policy impacts over the very long term.

He recognises the tension between the need for continuing work to develop our understanding of the changing nature of ethnicity, and the need to fix the classifications at some point (e.g. at Census time) to enable consistency of reporting and comparability with the Census. These considerations are set within a social and political framework of considerable interest in equal opportunities and in issues of national identity.

Len considered particularly carefully the argument that the 1991 Census-based classification of ethnic groups should be retained to provide data that were consistent over time. However, on balance the decision to introduce the new interim National Statistics standard classification acknowledges the importance of the Census - which in 2001 is using new ethnic group categories developed after considerable research - as a benchmark for the policy formation and target setting which lie at the heart of the government's diversity agenda. The decision reflects the expressed need of key users of ethnic group statistics for comparability between the Census and other data sources.


Future research

The National Statistician also sees a clear need for research to further enhance the National Statistics understanding of and approach to classifying ethnicity and related concepts. Clarity in thinking about what we are trying to measure and why, and consideration of the framework around ethnicity at the start of the 21st century, are very important. Len emphasises the importance of ensuring that any decisions are trusted by the various communities and not seen as part of a constraint on cultural identity. He considers that ethnic groups themselves need to 'own' the labels as well as the identity.

This work needs to draw on existing research - such as that which influenced the 2001 Census questions - and to be informed and influenced by experience and research from other countries - for example the USA and Australia. It should explore the inter-play between concepts such as ethnicity, religion, national identity/background, cultural identity/background, language, ancestry etc. The work calls for an approach that transcends statistics and embraces sociological and political considerations as well.

The Office for National Statistics is currently considering the scope and feasibility of such research, in which we will be seeking the continued and active involvement of other government departments and interested non-governmental organisations, including the Commission for Racial Equality and the Northern Ireland Equality Commission. We will also continue to consult experts outside government working on these issues, for example in academia. ONS will post progress reports on this web site. Once this research is completed, the 2001 interim classification of ethnic groups will be re-visited. It is anticipated that the findings of the work will inform the decision on a 'final' National Statistics standard classification for 2002, though it is expected that the research will enhance the portfolio of related information rather than lead to a revision of the interim classification itself.

For further information contact Ethnicity&Identity@ONS.gov.uk


Suggested questions for collecting ethnic and national group data

Following testing of questions by ONS on the Omnibus Survey, the set of questions below is the preferred portfolio and order for generating the NS standard output classification for face-to-face surveys. Further guidance on question design (e.g. telephone surveys, administrative sources) will be issued in due course, but in the meantime please use the contact given above for further information.

NB: ONS are conducting tests to examine the 'order effects' of the different categories of the national identity question but results will not be available until end April 2001. Until then it is recommended that the answer categories be presented as shown.

National Identity

Q1 (see earlier note on order of categories)
What do you consider your national identity to be? Please choose your answer from this card, choose as many or as few as apply?

(In England)
Or something else?

(In Scotland)
Or something else?

(In Wales)
Or something else?

This question applies to those who selected 'Other answer' at Q1.
How would you describe your national identity?

Interviewer instructions

We want people to be able to choose one national identity if that's how they think of themselves, or if they really hold more than one identity, then to be able to express this. Therefore please make sure that you read out the phrase "Please choose as many or as few as apply" clearly and slowly so that respondents realise that they can select more than one answer if necessary. Please pause long enough after they have given an answer to allow them time to choose another answer if they want to.

If respondents ask for a definition of National Identity, please say it is whatever it means to them. If you are taking proxy information ask respondents what category or categories they think other household members are in. Never attempt any judgement of your own.

Ethnic Group
To which of these ethnic groups do you consider you belong?


  • British
  • Any other White background (Please describe)
  • White and Black Caribbean
  • White and Black African
  • White and Asian
  • Any other Mixed background (Please describe)
Asian or Asian British
  • Indian
  • Pakistani
  • Bangladeshi
  • Any other Asian background (Please describe)
Black or Black British
  • Caribbean
  • African
  • Any other Black background (Please describe)
Chinese or other ethnic group
  • Chinese
  • Any other (Please describe)

This question applies to those selecting:
Another White background
Any other Mixed background
Any other Asian background
Any other Black background
Any other

Interviewer instructions

We need to know what ethnic group the respondent thinks he or she is in (or, if you are taking proxy information, what group the respondent thinks another household member is in). Never attempt any judgement of your own.


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This page last revised: Friday 16 February 2001

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