Since ethnicity is a multifaceted and changing phenomenon, various possible ways of measuring ethnic groups are available and have been used over time. These include country of birth, nationality, language spoken at home, skin colour (an aspect for consideration for some and not for others), national/geographical origin and religion. What seems to be generally accepted, however, is that ethnicity includes all these aspects, and others, in combination.
- Country of birth
- Language spoken at home
- Skin colour
- National/geographical origin
For many years, the only ethnicity statistics regularly available in the UK were based on people’s country of birth. This has limited reliability and has become increasingly less relevant when used on its own as the proportion of ethnic minority individuals born in the UK has increased and also because it includes children born abroad to British-born parents.
Some host countries use nationality as their primary criterion, implying that migrants renounce their ethnicity once they have qualified for citizenship. However, it is clear that many of the disadvantages and other experiences associated with ethnic minority status continue long after naturalisation has been completed.
For some minority ethnic groups, language spoken at home may be an effective way of defining ethnicity. Such a question has been commonly asked in large national surveys of minority ethnic groups, not only to identify members of the minority but also to permit the matching of interviewer with respondent in cases where the interview is conducted in the indigenous language. But, as time goes on, this measure is becoming increasingly less useful: with the emergence of the second and third generations, young families may use English as their main language, even though they still identify with particular minority ethnic groups.
Skin colour is an option for considering ethnic group. However, it’s not an adequate criterion in its own right, and for some, its use is seen as unacceptable.
A question may include aspects of national or geographical origin, with the assumption that these help to identify ethnic groups. For example, the terms West Indian or Indian are taken as shorthand terms for members of ethnic groups originating in those parts of the world. A further development has been to combine national or geographical origin with a colour term such as Black, as in Black-African, to identify more precisely which group is being referred to for people originating from a part of the world which is itself multi-ethnic, such as sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the important defining characteristics for some ethnic minorities is their religion. Some commentators think that the religious dimension should be recognised more explicitly.