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Ethnicity is the ethnic group or groups that people identify with or feel they belong to. Ethnicity is a measure of cultural affiliation, as opposed to race, ancestry, nationality or citizenship. Ethnicity is self perceived and people can belong to more than one ethnic group.

An ethnic group is made up of people who have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • a common proper name
  • one or more elements of common culture which need not be specified, but may include religion, customs, or language
  • unique community of interests, feelings and actions
  • a shared sense of common origins or ancestry, and
  • a common geographic origin.

This definition is based on the work of Smith (1986).

Operational issues


Collection of ethnicity presents some difficulties. People report a range of aspects of their identities such as cultural affiliation, ancestry, nationality and race when asked for ethnic group identification. Evidence suggests that people may answer the question easily but not understand the ethnicity concept being asked for. Another difficulty is that some may report one ethnic group but identify with more than one, or report more but in fact identify with fewer groups. Finally, a number of people object to answering an ethnicity question and may refuse to answer or may answer facetiously.

When collecting ethnicity information, people need to be able to state their specific ethnic groups without being forced to identify themselves in a more general category. Detailed ethnic group information is to be collected in order to allow categorisation at the most detailed level of the ethnicity classification, level 4. Data can be aggregated into a smaller number of categories as users require.

Where it is not possible to collect data at level 4 of the classification, for instance in administrative data collections where written responses are not able to be coded, ethnic group information should be collected at level 2 of the classification which is less detailed.

All collections of official statistics measuring ethnicity should have the capacity to capture six ethnicity responses per person. Where this cannot be implemented immediately, it is recommended that a minimum of three ethnicity responses be collected.

Ethnic group changing over time (ethnic mobility)

The ethnic group or groups that someone identifies with may change over time. It is necessary to allow for ethnic mobility in longitudinal surveys and administrative databases. Ethnic mobility also affects the integration of different data sets as the same person may have given different ethnic group answers in different collections. Rather than using both data sets' responses, the decision on what is appropriate to use needs to be decided on a case by case basis.

Ethnic group changing with context

A difficulty that is not easily overcome when collecting ethnic group information is the possibility that a person may give a different response depending on the context. For example, when filling in a self-administered form a person may respond differently from when asked his/her ethnic group by an interviewer. Also, the social or cultural setting may affect the ethnicity response reported. A decision on what is appropriate to use for integrated data sets needs to be decided on a case by case basis.

Legal age

Ethnicity is self-defined. While no legal or recommended age has been set at which a child can respond on their own behalf, the expectation is that teenagers will self–identify their ethnicity.

Ethnicity collection by proxy

Statistics New Zealand collects a self–identified concept of ethnicity. In some circumstances a person may be unable to answer this question and the next–of–kin, parent, spouse or partner needs to respond on their behalf, for example, in the case of birth or death, or incapacity because of disability, injury or sickness. Also parents, caregivers or guardians of a child may complete an ethnicity question on behalf of their child.

Multiple ethnicity

People may identify with more than one ethnic group so when collecting ethnicity data there needs to be provision to collect multiple ethnic groups for each individual. It is recommended that six ethnic group responses per person be collected where possible. The ability to collect three responses is the minimum requirement to meet the standard. See Coding process for more detail.

Explanatory notes

Race/ancestry/citizenship/ethnic origin

Ethnicity should not be confused with other related terms. Race is a biological indicator and an ascribed attribute. Ancestry is a biological and historical concept and refers to a person's blood descent. Citizenship is a legal status. These terms contrast with ethnicity which is self–perceived and a cultural concept. Ethnic origin is a person's historical relationship to an ethnic group, or a person's ancestors' affiliation to an ethnic group, whereas ethnicity is a person's present–day affiliation.

Business, family and household

Ethnicity is a personal attribute and therefore it is not valid to attribute an ethnicity to a business, family or household based on the ethnicity of an individual within that business, family or household.

New Zealander responses

Prior to the introduction of this statistical standard, a New Zealander response was included in the New Zealand European category. In the standard classification of ethnicity, New Zealander and similar responses like Kiwi are classified to a separate ethnic group category at the most detailed level, level 4. This category is called ‘New Zealander’. For time series purposes, the counts of the New Zealander category can be added to the counts of the New Zealand European category to recreate a count for the New Zealand European category which will be comparable to those from previous data collections.

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