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Ethnic minorities: defining ethnicity and race


Ethnicity has been defined as:

"the social group a person belongs to, and either identifies with or is identified with by others, as a result of a mix of cultural and other factors including language, diet, religion, ancestry and physical features traditionally associated with race". (1)

Ethnicity is essentially self-defined and may change over time. Classification of ethnicity is essentially pragmatic, based on categories that include common self-descriptions, are acceptable to respondents and that identify variations that are important for research or policy. There is increasing recognition that people may want to identify themselves with more than one ethnic group, and the "mixed" category introduced in the UK 2001 Census attempts to do this. The standard classification of ethnic group in the UK is that used in the 2011 Census (which was slightly different in each of the four countries of the UK). Ethnicity is different from country of origin, since many countries include more than one ethnic group.


The concept of race is controversial. It is difficult to define a rationale for racial categories and there is no consistent agreement about an objective set of categories. Classifying individuals by their physical appearance and skin colour is unreliable and of questionable validity. Genetic studies have found some evidence of broad "continental" groups which are genetically similar.(2,3) However, there is little evidence that these correspond to commonly perceived racial categories.(4) There is wider genetic variation between individuals within one "racial" group (such as "white") than there is between such "racial" groups (5) - indeed 93% to 95% of genetic variation is within population groups. Despite these difficulties, the term race is still widely used in legal and policy contexts.


Migrant terms and definitions. This paper aims to frame and define terms currently used in the UK in relation to the different forms of status of people who have migrated to the UK. It does not make any judgement about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of these terms, nor does it recommend that any particular terms should or should not be used. However, it does emphasise the importance of paying careful attention to the way words are used and understood in this sensitive area.

Country of birth

Country of birth has been widely used as a proxy for ethnic group and is of more value when the majority of minority ethnic populations are first generation immigrants. However, it is an increasingly unreliable guide to ethnicity in the UK. For example, in Scotland only around 40% of Indians were born in India and just over a third of Pakistanis were born in Pakistan. These proportions are generally even lower among younger people. Furthermore, the population born in India still includes many older people who identify their ethnic group as white, whose families were in business or diplomatic service.


(1) Bhopal R. Glossary of terms relating to ethnicity and race: for reflection and debate. J Epidemiol Community Health 2004:58:441-445.

(2) Risch N, Burchard E, Ziv E, Tang H. Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease. Genome Biology 2002;3:2007.

(3) Burchard EG, Ziv E, Coyle N, Gomez SL, Tang H, Karter AJ, Mountain JL, Perez-Stable EJ, Sheppard D, Risch N. The importance of race and ethnic background in biomedical research and clinical practice. New England Journal of Medicine 2003;348:1170-5.

(4) Cooper RS, Kaufman JS, Ward R. Race and genomics. New England Journal of Medicine 2003;348(12):1166-70.

(5) Rosenberg NA, Pritchard JK, Weber JL, et al. Genetic structure of human populations. Science 2002;298:2381-5.

Page last updated: 21 December 2016

© Scottish Public Health Observatory 2014