Journal of Official Statistics, Vol.2, No.4, 1986. pp. 471480

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A Controversial Census Topic: Race and Ethnicity in the British Census

This paper examines attempts to collect data on a politically controversial topic, race and ethnicity, in the British Census of Population in the post-war period. It discusses an indirect, proxy method of inferring race or ethnicity by asking for the country of birth of the respondent and of his parents, and a direct question where the respondent is asked to identify his racial or ethnic group. Different versions of the direct question are examined, as is the 1979 Census test, which resulted in considerable public resistance to the question. Following the exclusion of the direct question from the 1981 Census, the subject was reviewed by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, the results of whose report – including practical suggestions as to question wording – are discussed. The Census Office (O.P.C.S.) will have to maintain a higher public profile if such questions are to be asked successfully in the future.

Census; race; ethnicity; Britain; self-identification; proxy; census test.

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