Volume 44 - Article 21 | Pages 481–512

Classifying multiple ethnic identifications: Methodological effects on child, adolescent, and adult ethnic distributions

By Esther S. Yao, Kane Meissel, Pat Bullen, Polly Atatoa Carr, Terryann Clark, Susan Morton

Print this page  Facebook  Twitter


Date received:02 Jul 2020
Date published:16 Mar 2021
Word count:7605
Keywords:ethnic classification, ethnic measurement, ethnicity, methods, multiple ethnicities, race/ethnicity


Background: The burgeoning global multi-ethnic population, in conjunction with the importance of accurate ethnic group counts for research and policy purposes, make classification of multiple ethnic responses a complex but important issue. There are numerous possible classification approaches, differing in ethical implications and ease of statistical application.

Objective: This study empirically examines the validity and consistency of three comparatively accessible ethnic classification methods (total response, administrative-prioritisation, and self-prioritisation) in increasingly ethnically diverse age cohorts (adults, adolescents, and children).

Methods: We utilised secondary data from two large-scale studies in Aotearoa/New Zealand which asked children (N = 6,149; responded via mother proxy), adolescents (N = 8,464), and adults (N = 11,210) to select (1) all the ethnicities they identified with, and (2) their main ethnicity. The data were coded, then analysed using descriptive statistics and z-tests for proportional differences.

Results: The majority of multi-ethnic participants were able to select a main ethnic group when required, but around 20% could not or refused to do so, and there was over 60% discrepancy between self-prioritised ethnicity and administrative-prioritised ethnicity. Differences by age group and ethnic combination were apparent. Comparison of overall ethnic group proportions outputted by the three classification methods revealed within-group variation, particularly where there were higher rates of multi-ethnic identification.

Contribution: This study empirically demonstrates that researchers’ choice of ethnic classification method can have a strong influence on ethnic group proportions. Researchers should therefore select the classification method most appropriate for their research question and clearly report the method employed.

Author's Affiliation

Esther S. Yao - University of Auckland, New Zealand [Email]
Kane Meissel - University of Auckland, New Zealand [Email]
Pat Bullen - University of Auckland, New Zealand [Email]
Polly Atatoa Carr - University of Waikato, New Zealand [Email]
Terryann Clark - University of Auckland, New Zealand [Email]
Susan Morton - University of Auckland, New Zealand [Email]

Most recent similar articles in Demographic Research

» The role of education in the association between race/ethnicity/nativity, cognitive impairment, and dementia among older adults in the United States
Volume 38 - Article 6    | Keywords: ethnicity, race/ethnicity

» State-level changes in US racial and ethnic diversity, 1980 to 2015: A universal trend?
Volume 37 - Article 33    | Keywords: ethnicity, race/ethnicity

» The differential impact of mortality of American troops in the Iraq War: The non-metropolitan dimension
Volume 23 - Article 2    | Keywords: ethnicity, race/ethnicity

» The gender gap in the United States: Housework across racialized groups
Volume 43 - Article 36    | Keywords: race/ethnicity

» An extended evaluation of the weathering hypothesis for birthweight
Volume 43 - Article 31    | Keywords: race/ethnicity