Classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom

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The classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom has attracted controversy in the past. This was particularly the situation at the time of the 2001 Census, where the existence and nature of such a classification, which appeared on the Census form, became more widely known than general. Different classifications, both formal and informal, are used in Britain.

National statistics[edit]


The ethnicity data used in UK national statistics relies on individuals' self-definition. The Office for National Statistics explain this as follows:

Is a person's ethnic group self-defined?

Yes. Membership of an ethnic group is something that is subjectively meaningful to the person concerned, and this is the principal basis for ethnic categorisation in the United Kingdom. So, in ethnic group questions, we are unable to base ethnic identification upon objective, quantifiable information as we would, say, for age or gender. And this means that we should rather ask people which group they see themselves as belonging to.[1]

This self-defined categorization was also used for classifying ethnicity in the 2001 UK Census.[2] Slightly different categories were employed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as compared with England and Wales, "to reflect local differences in the requirement for information".[3] However, the data collected still allow for comparison across the UK.[3] Different classifications were used in the 1991 Census, which was the first to include a question on ethnicity.[4][5]

Proposed changes to the 2011 Census regarding ethnicity[edit]

There were calls for the 2011 national census in England and Wales to include extra tick boxes so people could identify their ethnic group in category A as Welsh, English and Cornish[6][7] The tick boxes at the time only included British, Irish or any other.

Some experts, community and special interest group respondents also pointed out that the 'Black African' category was too broad. They remarked that the category did not provide enough information on the considerable diversity that existed within the various populations currently classified under this heading. This concealed heterogeneity ultimately made the gathered data of limited use analytically. To remedy this, the Muslim Council of Britain proposed that this census category should be broken down instead into specific ethnic groups.[8]

The National Association of British Arabs and other Arab organizations also lobbied for the inclusion of a separate "Arab" entry, which would include under-reported groups from the Arab world such as Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis and Maghrebis.[9]

The specimen 2011 Census questions were published in 2009 and included new "Gypsy or Irish Traveller" and "Arab" categories.[10]

Ethnicity categories[edit]

The following are the options the ONS currently recommends for ethnicity surveys:[11]

England and Wales Scotland Northern Ireland
White White White
English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British Scottish Irish Traveller
Irish Other British Mixed / Multiple ethnic groups
Gypsy or Irish traveller Irish White and Black Caribbean
Any other White background, please describe Gypsy or Irish Traveller White and Black African
Mixed / multiple ethnic groups Polish White and Asian
White and Black Caribbean Any other White ethnic group, please describe Any other Mixed / Multiple ethnic background, please describe
White and Black African Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups Asian / Asian British
White and Asian Any Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups, please describe Indian
Any other Mixed / Multiple ethnic background, please describe Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British Pakistani
Asian / Asian British Pakistani, Pakistani Scottish or Pakistani British Bangladeshi
Indian Indian, Indian Scottish or Indian British Chinese
Pakistani Bangladeshi, Bangladeshi Scottish or Bangladeshi British Any other Asian background, please describe
Bangladeshi Chinese, Chinese Scottish or Chinese British Black / African / Caribbean / Black British
Chinese Any other Asian, please describe African
Any other Asian background, please describe African Caribbean
Black / African / Caribbean / Black British African, African Scottish or African British Any other Black / African / Caribbean background, please describe
African Any other African, please describe Other ethnic group
Caribbean Caribbean or Black Arab
Any other Black / African / Caribbean background, please describe Caribbean, Caribbean Scottish or Caribbean British Any other ethnic group, please describe
Other ethnic group Black, Black Scottish or Black British
Arab Any other Caribbean or Black, please describe
Any other ethnic group, please describe Other ethnic group
Arab, Arab Scottish or Arab British
Any other ethnic group, please describe

In addition to the above "tick-box" options, respondents can also make use of "write-in" or "please describe" options. To do this, they would have to select one of the "other" categories on the census form and write in their answer in the box provided. More details are available on the National Statistics website.[12]


The police services of the UK began to classify arrests in racial groups in 1975, but later replaced the race code with an Identity Code (IC) system.[13]

  • IC1 White person
  • IC2 Mediterranean person
  • IC3 African/Caribbean person
  • IC4 Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Maldivian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, or any other (South) Asian person
  • IC5 Chinese, Japanese, Korean or South-East Asian person
  • IC6 Arabic, Egyptian or Maghreb person
  • IC0 Origin unknown

This classification is still referred to on some police websites and police chase TV shows, e.g. "Driver is IC1 male, passenger is IC3 male".[14]

From 1 April 2003, police forces were required to use the new system described above. Police forces and civil and emergency services, the NHS and local authorities in England and Wales may refer to this as the "16+1" system, named after the 16 classifications of ethnicity plus one category for "not stated". The IC classification is still used for descriptions of suspects by police officers amongst themselves, but does risk incorrectly identifying a victim, a witness or a suspect compared to that person's own description of their ethnicity. When a person is stopped by a police officer exercising statutory powers and asked to provide information under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, they are asked to select one of the five main categories representing broad ethnic groups and then a more specific cultural background from within this group.[15] Officers must record the respondent's answer, not their own opinion.


  1. ^ "Ethnic group statistics: A guide for the collection and classification of ethnicity data". Office for National Statistics. 2003. p. 9. Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  2. ^ "Harmonised Concepts and Questions for Social Data Sources: Primary Standards – Ethnic Group". Office for National Statistics. April 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  3. ^ a b "Population size: 7.9% from a non-White ethnic group". Office for National Statistics. 2004-01-08. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  4. ^ Sillitoe, K.; White, P.H. (1992). "Ethnic group and the British census: The search for a question". Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (Statistics in Society) 155 (1): 141–163. JSTOR 2982673. 
  5. ^ Bosveld, Karin; Connolly, Helen; Rendall, Michael S. (31 March 2006). "A guide to comparing 1991 and 2001 Census ethnic group data". Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 21 November 2010. 
  6. ^ Fight goes on to include Cornish ethnicity and language in Census 2011 options [dead link]
  7. ^ "2006 local govt abstracts". Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  8. ^ Summary report: experts, community and special interest groups
  9. ^ Arab Population in the UK - Study for consideration of inclusion of ‘Arab’ as an ethnic group on future census returns
  10. ^ "2011 census questions published". BBC News. 21 October 2009. Retrieved 4 April 2010. 
  11. ^ "Ethnic Group". Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 12 December 2012. 
  12. ^ "The Classification of Ethnic Groups". National Statistics. 2001-02-16. Archived from the original on 2007-04-06. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  13. ^ Mackie, Lindsay (1978-06-14). "Race causes an initial confusion". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  14. ^ "Abbreviations Used". Freedom of Information Act (Sussex Police Online). Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  15. ^ "Code of Practice for the Exercise by Police Officers of Statutory Powers of Stop and Search; Police Officers and Police Staff of Requirements to Record Public Encounters". Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 CODE A (HMSO). 

External links[edit]