"Family ethnicity": knitting a jumper using two woolly concepts.

AuthorCallister, Paul


While ethnicity, as collected in surveys in New Zealand, is a personal attribute not a group measure, there is some demand from the policy community and researchers for measures of family ethnicity. Yet both ethnicity and family are "woolly" concepts. The paper explores the uses made of ethnic family measures in research and policy making in New Zealand and, based on census data, explores a range of possible classification systems. The diversity of individual ethnic affiliations within New Zealand families leads us to suggest that measures of family ethnicity that incorporate the responses of all individuals are likely to be more suitable for informing research and policy than those that lead to an artificial simplification of ethnic responses.


The concept of an ethnic family is commonly used in everyday conversation and in the media. Similarly, policy analysts sometimes talk about ethnic families in contexts such as the incidence of poverty or the adequacy of retirement savings. Yet the 2004 Review of the Measurement of Ethnicity (RME), undertaken by Statistics New Zealand, argued that ethnicity was a personal attribute that could not be ascribed to a group. The review noted that the high rate of intermarriage between ethnic groups in New Zealand, as well as the significant number of individuals who record dual or multiple ethnicities, creates major challenges in assigning an ethnic group to a household or family, both conceptually and practically. Although some submissions to that review and a subsequent review of family statistics said that family and household ethnicity output would be of interest, there was an awareness of the problems of associating an individual response variable to a family or household.

Given both the interest in family ethnicity, but also the challenges in measuring it, Statistics New Zealand recognised that further exploration of the concept would be useful and therefore provided research funding. Based on a mixture of theoretical considerations, empirical investigation and consultation, four main issues were explored:

* What are the uses made of ethnic family measures in research and policy making in New Zealand?

* Are these common enough uses to warrant standard measures, and if so, what type of measure should be used?

* Alternatively, should a range of measures be developed to suit a variety of uses?

* What sorts of results are obtained using different methods of classifying the ethnicity of families applied to census data? (2)

As indicated in the title, family ethnicity brings together two concepts, "family" and "ethnicity", which are, to some greater or lesser extent, woolly (that is, they are difficult to define). We therefore begin with a brief discussion of what these two concepts are measuring. The paper then provides some examples of how family ethnicity is used in research and policy making within New Zealand. This is followed by examples of how family ethnicity could be measured. (3)

Overall, our research supports the earlier Statistics New Zealand view that family ethnicity is primarily a personal attribute that cannot be easily attributed to a group. However, the consultation process showed that there is some demand from within the policy and research community for ways of classifying family ethnicity. Part of this demand comes from having population agencies and a need to report ethnic outcomes within this context. We also found a range of family ethnicity measures in current use without methodological critique. In discussion it was recognised that there was a need for some evaluation of measurement strategies. Given this demand, and based on our statistical exploration, we set out the family ethnicity measures we consider most useful.


There has been a long, vigorous and unresolved debate about the measurement of the ethnicity of individuals in New Zealand. This includes papers recently published in this journal (e.g. Callister 2004, Kukutai 2003). As a result of its latest review of ethnicity statistics, Statistics New Zealand (2004) listed a number of factors that may contribute to, or influence, a person's ethnicity. As they note, many of these are interrelated. This list is:

* name (4)

* ancestry

* culture

* where a person lives and the social context

* race

* country of birth and/or nationality

* citizenship

* religion and language.

This list suggests that a quite diverse set of influences will be guiding individual responses to surveys. For example, some people may be strongly influenced by their ancestry but have little connection with the culture that may be associated with such ancestry. Others may emphasise more strongly their cultural links and/or the country they migrated from. One of the issues that has received much attention in recent years, and which emphasises the "woolly" nature of ethnicity, is how to analyse data where people record more than one ethnic group. Another, especially post the 2006 Census, is how to deal with "New Zealander" responses. In his 2005 paper Understanding and Working with Ethnicity Data, Didham sets out recommendations in relation to both these issues. In terms of output data, in relation to individuals Statistics New Zealand has recommended no longer using ethnic prioritisation but instead using total counts or, where appropriate, main single and multiple combinations of ethnicities. In relation to the response "New Zealander", past practice has been to place these responses in the New Zealand European category, which sits within the level 1 category "European". However, these responses are now placed in a new "Other" level 1 group in 2006 Census output. In the 2006 Census, "New Zealander" was the third-largest ethnic group. While this level of response is not yet being seen in administrative surveys, discussions with the policy community suggest "New Zealander" responses may be becoming more common in such data sets.

Despite the discussions as to what ethnicity may be measuring, our consultation suggests there remains considerable uncertainty among data users as to what information the ethnicity variables collected in official statistics are providing. Although ethnicity is supposed to be primarily a self-defined cultural measure, many people see ancestry as having the strongest influence on ethnicity. There also remains a variety of opinions about recognition and handling of New Zealander responses, with some suggesting these responses should simply be re-classified as Europeans, whereas others see this as a valid response signalling an important cultural change occurring in New Zealand. It also seemed that, in part, the uses made of ethnicity data by researchers and the policy community are also helping shape concepts of ethnicity. Uncertainty about what individual ethnicity responses are measuring needs to be kept in mind when considering family ethnicity measures where these uncertainties become manifold.


Although not an issue that is directly focused on in this study, the definition, then measurement and classification of families is an evolving area. The "woolly" nature of families in the 21st century is acknowledged in the definition of them in the Families Commission Act 2003. Recognising diversity the Act states "family includes a group of people related by marriage, [civil union,] blood, or adoption, an extended family, 2 or more persons living together as a family, and a whanau or other culturally recognised family group". Challenges in defining then measuring families include the recognition that families extend beyond household boundaries, or that households may contain more than one, not infrequently interrelated, family. In addition, individuals within a family may conceptualise their family in different ways from other family members. These dynamics will also affect the way in which individuals report their ethnicities and consequently the measurement of ethnicity within families. Moreover, data for family members are often obtained by proxy from one family member.

In the early stages of our research, Statistics New Zealand was undertaking a Review of Official Family Statistics, and in relation to family ethnicity this review recommended further research. Also informing our research was a Statistics New Zealand Review of Culture and Identity Statistics, a Ministry of Health scoping project to investigate options for measuring whanau (Ministry of Health 2006), and a Families Commission project to consider whanau measurement (Walker 2006).


In New Zealand, terms such as "Maori family", "Pacific household" or "Somali family" are commonly used by the general public, are reported in the media and can be found in research literature. Government policy statements at times focus on family or household ethnicity rather than on individuals and their ethnic affiliations. Often this focus is on actual or hoped-for outcomes for...

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