Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

A "Main" Ethnic Group? Ethnic Self-Prioritisation among New Zealand Youth

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

A "Main" Ethnic Group? Ethnic Self-Prioritisation among New Zealand Youth

Article excerpt


Since 1991 a growing share of the New Zealand population has reported more than one ethnic group in the census, with rates especially high among children. A key challenge arising from the collection of ethnicity data is deciding where to count people who record more than one group. In this paper we explore how a self-prioritised measure of main ethnicity may facilitate and improve the usage of multiple-ethnic data. We do so using 2006 data from wave one of the Youth Connectedness survey of early adolescents. We find that three-quarters of youth who recorded more than one ethnic group were able to choose a main group when asked to do so. Though we have reservations about using a main ethnicity measure to output ethnic data, we see promise for research that seeks to better understand identification processes and their relations with ethnic identity and inequality.


The view that race and ethnicity are socially and politically constructed markers of difference rather than objective traits of human beings is unremarkable in the social sciences (Omi and Winant 1994). In other forums, however, the belief in the idea of distinct races endures--testament to its powerful rendering through legal, bureaucratic and "scientific" designations, racial ideologies, and everyday interactions (Callister and Didham 2009). Although the globalisation of migration flows and the removal of prescriptive identity rules and classifications have begun to challenge long-held notions that individuals belong to a single race or ethnic group, change has been slow to filter through to official statistics.

Among census-taking nations, New Zealand is one of a small number that explicitly allows for identification with multiple ethnic groups (Kukutai and Thompson 2007, Morning 2008). Since the introduction of the ethnic group question in the 1991 census, a growing share of the New Zealand population has reported belonging to more than one group. As Table 1 shows, in 1991 just 5% of New Zealanders identified with more than one ethnic group; by 2006 this had doubled, though the increase has not been monotonic. In all years multi-ethnic identification has been especially pronounced among younger people and among Maori and Pacific peoples. The latter groups are of interest to policy makers, in part because of their comparative socio-economic disadvantage.

In New Zealand, as in other Anglo settler states (United States, Canada, Australia), ethnicity and related terms such as "race" and "indigeneity" are important variables in social research and policy. Among those who work with ethnicity data in New Zealand there is a broad consensus that allowing people to choose more than one group is desirable to best reflect the nation's ethnic milieu (Didham 2005). However, giving effect to complex ethnic identification presents a number of challenges in terms of measurement, analysis and dissemination. How should people who choose to identify with multiple groups be statistically represented? What weight should be given to statistical requirements versus individual identification decisions? What does identification with more than one group even mean? As Bhopal (2004) notes, there is no easy answer to such questions:

The increasing acceptance of sexual unions that cross ethnic and racial boundaries is adding both richness and complexity to most societies. The way to categorise people born of such unions is unclear and the current approaches are inadequate, partly because the number of potential categories is huge. (Bhopal 2004:444)

In this paper we explore how a self-prioritised ethnicity measure may help advance the understanding of complex ethnicity data. Allowing people to choose a main ethnic group was one of several approaches for managing multiple-ethnic data identified in the 2004 Report of the Review of the Measurement of Ethnicity (Statistics New Zealand 2004). However, with the exception of Kukutai (2004, 2008), little research has been conducted on ethnic self-prioritisation. …

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