Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

The Problem of Defining an Ethnic Group for Public Policy: Who Is Maori and Why Does It Matter?

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

The Problem of Defining an Ethnic Group for Public Policy: Who Is Maori and Why Does It Matter?

Article excerpt


Governments in multicultural democracies are increasingly being challenged to justify the collection of ethnic and racial data, and the targeted policies they support. Given mounting opposition to ethnic-based policies in New Zealand, it is timely to consider two questions that have arisen from ongoing debate. The first is what criteria ought to apply to determine who is Maori for policy purposes. The second is which Maori ought to benefit from targeted policies and programmes. This paper addresses both questions empirically and makes two suggestions: (1) that statistical and legal definitions of Maori be amended to take account of both self-identified ethnicity and descent; (2) that programmes which seek to militate Maori disadvantage be oriented towards those who strongly identify as Maori, since they are the most likely to be in need.


With the new millennium has come rising opposition to the collection of ethnic and racial data and the policies and programmes they support (Connerly 2003, Nobles 2000, Perlmann and Waters 2002, Petersen 1997). (2) A central critique of race- and ethnic-based policies is that they belie the cultural and socio-economic diversity that exits within historically marginalised groups. Clearly not all persons who identify with a disadvantaged group are themselves disadvantaged. The objectivity and accuracy of the data that inform policy decisions have also come under scrutiny. In order to monitor and address disparities, policy makers need reliable and consistent ways to define racial and ethnic groups, and to identify their members. However, intermarriage and changing ideas about race have complicated how people self-identify, and are identified by others (Goldstein and Morning 2002, Harris and Sim 2002, Perlmann and Waters 2002). Increasingly, the treatment of ethnic groups as discrete is problematised by the ability and willingness of individuals to claim multiple affiliations.

Indigenous peoples (3) such as Maori exemplify the problem that policy makers face in dealing with heterogeneity. High rates of intermarriage and institutional pressures to assimilate mean they comprise persons with diverse lifestyles, socio-economic circumstances and identities. Yet, for reasons of history and contemporary politics, public policy tends to treat them as homogeneous (Chapple 2000, Cunningham et al. 2002, Gardiner-Garden 2003, Snipp 2002). Typically indigenous peoples are the only ethnic groups with government agencies to monitor their outcomes, and deliver policies designed to improve their poor group-level status (Birrell 2000, Cobo 1986). (4) Their claim as original or sovereign peoples also confers specific legal rights relating to ownership of land and natural resources, cultural preservation, and political representation.

Given this, indigenous peoples tend to figure prominently in national debates on race, ethnicity, and resources. (5) Certainly in New Zealand there is growing disquiet about the appropriateness and fairness of policies and practices that would appear to assist individuals on the basis of ethnicity. Indeed, at the time of writing a host of targeted policies and programmes were under review, including several major ones aimed at Maori. (6) It is timely, therefore, to give closer scrutiny to some of the issues that have been central to domestic debates about ethnic data and policies.

Underlying the debate is the fundamental question of how to define an ethnic or racial group in contexts where rewards and resources are involved. While this is a matter of consequence for all ethnic groups in New Zealand, it has particular implications for Maori. This paper considers emerging approaches to defining ethnic or racial group membership generally, before turning to the specific context of New Zealand. Related to the issue of definition is the matter of entitlement, and which Maori ought to benefit from public policy interventions. …

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