Title: The new Census question about ancestry: what did it tell us about ethnic identity?

POPLINE Document Number: 061272


Farley R

Source citation:

[Unpublished] 1990. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Toronto, Canada, May 3-5, 1990. [34] p.


An analysis of the quality of reporting on the ancestry question in the 1980 and 1990 U.S. Census suggests that there is a wide variation in consistency, with people descended from old stock early 19th century immigrants the least consistent, to recent immigrants reporting most accurately. The methods of checking consistency of reporting were: comparison of results with other data sets; statistical regression of variables affecting the reporting of ancestry; computing the index of consistency; and comparison with demographic characteristics. The ancestry question was open-ended, necessitating manual coding. 468 codes were employed, the 1st 2 ancestries reported were coded, "American" alone was not coded, nor was religion. The most commonly reported ancestries were English, German, Irish, Afro-American, and American, accounting for 56% of the population. There was a regional variation in reporting of ethnic diversity, with lowest diversity in the South, where "American" was used most often. Most minorities gave one response, e.g., Chinese, but Blacks gave the least divorce answers. Some factors favoring reporting in the logistic analysis affecting reporting of ancestry were married with spouse present, Northeast residence, being Asian or Native American, being older, born abroad, higher education. In comparison with the 1979 Current Population Survey and the 1986 National Content Test, English, Italian, French, Mexican, for example were highly inconsistent, while Swiss and Austrians varied only slightly. Recent immigrants and those with strong social identity were highly consistent across data sets. Factors like the sequence of questions strongly affected consistent reporting, e.g. high responses toward "English" after an English language question; The results were discussed in terms of theories of assimilation, contrasting the pluralists who espouse "unmeltable ethnics" to the assimilationists. Many responses may reflect "symbolic" or "imagined" ethnicity.


United States
Methodological Studies
Census Methods
Data Linkage
Family Reconstitution
Error Sources
Ethnic Groups
Developed Countries
North America
Population Statistics
Research Methodology
Data Collection
Family Research
Family and Household
Cultural Background
Population Characteristics
Demographic Factors
Population Dynamics
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