Politics of Classification: Ethnicity and Religion

Two of the most contentious of census variables are race/ethnicity and religion. On one level, this relates to the perception that these are private and sensitive issues, and many censuses present a question on religion as optional. More fundamentally, especially in the case of ethnicity, the politics of classification are significant, since 'ethnicity' is a term incorporating aspects of language, heritage, birthplace, nationality, cultural ritual and symbols, and religion.

The purposes of census questions on race or ethnicity are various. In colonial societies, the identification and classification of race was justified on the grounds of science, welfare assessment, service provision, and in the case of South Africa, a mechanism to administer apartheid. Many modern censuses collect data on race/ethnicity, usually for purposes of services and related planning, but in some cases also for legislative reasons (e.g., the allocation of Maori electoral seats in New Zealand).

Earlier censuses presented classifications of race in a biologically deterministic way. Questions often asked what proportion of a person's 'blood' was derived from a particular 'race' with results sometimes presented in fractions. Most recent censuses have used self declared 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic background'. Nevertheless, during the enumeration and analysis stages, the classification of these responses is fraught with difficulties. During enumeration, a set number of categories may be presented, purportedly representing the predominant ethnicities of a country, usually with the option to specify one or more 'other' categories. Listed categories tend to be chosen over those not listed, and the self identified 'other' tends to produce some responses which are spurious. There are differences of opinion as to what constitutes an ethnicity. Those who analyze ethnic data maintain that Canadian or Australian are nationalities rather than ethnicities since they do not allow any differentiation between indigenous groups nor between various linguistic and cultural groups, but there are many who prefer those identities because of long term residence in the country in question or because of the complexities of multiple ethnic origins.