Previous standard - Ethnicity

Ethnicity is somewhat multidimensional as it includes aspects such as race, origin or ancestry, identity, language and religion. It may also include more subtle dimensions such as culture, the arts, customs and beliefs and even practices such as dress and food preparation. It is also dynamic and in a constant state of flux. It will change as a result of new immigration flows, blending and intermarriage, and new identities may be formed.

There are fundamentally three ways of measuring ethnicity: origin or ancestry, race and identity.

Origin or ancestry attempts to determine the roots or ethnic background of a person. The concept, however, is somewhat ambiguous since it does not usually specify an historical reference point. Given that new ethnic groups may arise over time, it may be difficult for a respondent to answer a question about origins. For example, if one of a respondent's great, great grandfathers was a Scottish fur trader who entered a marital union with a Cree woman then is the respondent Scottish or Cree? Or is the respondent Métis, a group which is recognized in the Canadian constitution as a distinct Aboriginal population? This also illustrates the legitimacy of the reporting of multiple origins. Inasmuch as any individual has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on it is realized that there is a potential for those ancestors to come from a multiplicity of ethnic groups. The tabulation of the resultant data, therefore, becomes complex. This is usually handled by showing the population that has a single origin and the population that has multiple origins. The display of the combinations, such as French and English, in multiple responses is generally restricted to the dominant or most populous groups in the society. The concept may also suffer from a genuine lack of knowledge on the part of respondents. They may not know their backgrounds. In addition, public opinion may influence reporting under some circumstances. For example, it has been suggested that German origins may have been under-reported in the Census of 1941 which was taken during World War II.

Conceptually, race may be somewhat less ambiguous than origin or ancestry, but it is not without difficulties in terms of measurement. The concept is based primarily upon genetically imparted physiognomical features among which skin colour is a dominant, but not the sole, attribute. Nevertheless, it is possible for a person to be of mixed races, some of which, such as the mestiso of Latin America, have become recognized as evolved races in their own right. Furthermore, terminology may be ambiguous. Scholars may prefer to use the term caucasian rather than white but the former may not be well understood by many respondents. Other terminology evolves over time such as the evolution in America of Afro-Americans from black and earlier from negro. There may also be terminology very much in usage in the common lexicon which is actually offensive to a group in question. For example, the reference to the Inuit as Eskimo.

Identity has a certain appeal because it attempts to measure how people perceive themselves rather than their ancestors. Nevertheless, it retains certain dimensions of not only origin but race as well. In addition, it may include aspects of citizenship. A typical question might be, With which ethnic group do you identify? Some respondents may associate the question with citizenship and report Canadian. Others may associate it with origin and report Italian. Others might see it as involving both citizenship and origin and report Italian-Canadian. Others might see racial dimensions and report as black or black-Canadian. Furthermore, in some contexts, ethnicity might be implied but the reference is actually to language. For example, there are frequent references to French Canadians and English Canadians which are not on the basis of ethnicity per se but on the basis of the language spoken.

Given the difficulties in, not only developing appropriate concepts and constructs of ethnicity, but also in attempting to collect unambiguous data, it might be questioned whether the task should be undertaken. However, the international meeting on the Challenges of Measuring an Ethnic World (Ottawa, 1992), noted that, Ethnicity is a fundamental factor in human life: it is a phenomenon inherent in human experience. Thus, the inherent malleability of ethnicity is not a sufficient reason for statistical agencies to avoid collecting data on ethnicity. Data on ethnicity are also much in demand by a diverse range of data users.

Date modified: