Associated Study: Explaining ethnic choices in Understanding Society

This Associated Study conducted qualitative in-depth interviews with Understanding Society participants who had mixed parentage, to explore their reasons for ticking the survey boxes that don’t necessarily ‘match’ their parental ethnicity; and reasons for changing their reported ethnicity over time.

This Associated Study was carried out by Tze Ming Mok, Department of Social Policy, LSE

Understanding Society data reveals that only a minority of the people who could be defined as having ‘mixed or multiple ethnicity’ actually selected a ‘Mixed’ option in surveys. Similar numbers of people with parents from different ethnic groups state their ethnic group as White only. This Associated Study conducted qualitative in-depth interviews with Understanding Society participants who had mixed parentage, to explore their reasons for ticking boxes that don’t necessarily ‘match’ their parental ethnicity; and reasons for changing their reported ethnicity over time.

The research found that for mixed people in the UK, an ethnic question on a form is frequently seen as a political, social and economic site of surveillance, discourse, and performative representation. Answering the question can be an expression of personally evolving or fluctuating identity. This identity functioned as much like an attitudinal characteristic as an ‘objective’ static measure.

A range of cognitive problems with the ethnic question and options in Understanding Society (which reflect the 2011 Census standard) emerged from the interviews: in particular, inclusion of the word ‘British’ within the ‘White’ category; the options not being conceptually consistent or mutually exclusive; the lack of consistency between the respondent and parental ethnic group options; and the implications of the racial hierarchy within the list order and phrasing. These issues all affected response in varying ways.

However, many reasons for ‘counterintuitive’ choices had nothing specifically to do with the survey instrument.

  • ‘White choices’ for example, largely reflected a combination of physical appearance, cultural assimilation into White communities, distance from minority culture, and having grown up during a time of far more stigma attached to minority and mixed identities than now. ‘White choices’ were also often embedded in a wider cultural context privileging the status of the White British identity as ‘mainstream’, protected and protective.
  • Meanwhile, those who were content in their mixed identities typically lacked worries about being Othered, were younger and from more diverse areas, had more connection to their minority culture, and were more visible as minorities.
  • More than half of all interviewees reported forms of ethnic change – whether in ‘name only’ on a form, or in terms of their lived identity. Much of this occurred for substantive sociological reasons – e.g. motivated by self-protection, conflicted identity, or due to changing relationships with parents.
  • Ethnic change should not be seen as ‘just’ measurement error or basic coding errors, but as part of a performance and enactment of personal identity that is embedded within racialized social hierarchies. Overall, this research underlines the increasing need for multi-dimensional ethnicity and identity measures, such as the range currently used in Understanding Society (Burton, Nandi & Platt, 2010). It also points to the need for further evaluation of the adequacy of the UK Census ethnic question standard (Aspinall, 2017), and the importance of using repeated measures of ethnicity in longitudinal studies.

Read the research

Mok, T.M. (2018). Inside the box: Explaining ethnic choices in Understanding Society. Research report for an Understanding Society Associated Study (ISER/Essex University).

What is an Associated Study?

An Associated Study is an opportunity for individual researchers or organisations to collect information from Understanding Society respondents that has not already been asked in the survey. They provide the opportunity for new cross-disciplinary and mixed methods research.

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