Changing ethnic identities in England and Wales 1991-2001

Yaojun Li, David Marsh and Therese O'Toole, University of Birmingham

[Project number 30015]

Existing research using the 1991 Census and other data sets has shown significant ethnic differences and growing signs of social integration between the majority and the minority ethnic groups. On the whole, minority ethnic groups suffer from multiple disadvantages, especially in employment, occupation, housing and social deprivation. The most important differences are found to lie between Indians and Chinese on the one hand, and Pakistani, Bangladeshi and some of the Black groups on the other. In education, the second generation are catching up with or even overtaking British born whites. But even this should not be simply taken as a manifestation of the success of anti-discrimination policies but as a result of the conscientious efforts on their part to 'pre-empt' practices of social injustice and racial discrimination which are perceived to exist in the labour market in terms both of entry and of career advancement. There are also important signs of social integration as shown in the increasing intermarriage rates, especially between some Black groups and the whites.

Notwithstanding the achievements in the existing studies, some problems exist. The most important is that most studies treat ethnicity or ethnic identity as a more or less fixed entity and give a cross-sectional description. Owing to the lack of longitudinal data, no rigorous and systematic research has so far been possible on the socio-economic trajectories of ethnic groups, possible changes in ethnic identities, socio-cultural determinants of these changes, and whether such changes are associated with changes in the labour market situations in terms of employment and class attainment.

Ethnicity is not an ascribed, biological and fixed entity, but is a fluid concept depending on the socio-cultural context. It is possible that changes in the composition of the population (with a greater minority ethnic presence now than in the past), processes of socio-cultural assimilation, especially for the second generation and those growing up and educated in Britain, and social changes brought about by the implementation of anti-discrimination policies, have resulted in a considerable degree of 'identity shifting' in British society between 1991 and 2001.

The present project aims to make use of the LS to study the socio-economic trajectories of the ethnic minority groups, possible changes in their identities, socio-cultural determinants of such changes and their socio-economic consequences.

The LS (1991-2001) is the only data set which permits such a study. Questions on ethnicity were first directly asked in the 1991 Census and again in the 2001 Census although the latter had some changes in wording. There are about 543,000 members in the LS for 1991. As the proportion of ethnic minorities in the 1991 Census in England and Wales was about 5.86% (from the SARs), we estimate that there are about 31,820 members of minority ethnic groups in the 1991 LS. Because of sample attrition due to death, emigration or other causes, the number traced in the 2001 may be smaller, but enough for generating reliable results.

The LS has also other information needed for the present study, such as on the LS members and on their household members asked in the Census plus information from other sources. Using the information in the LS, we aim to do the following:

(1) We shall trace the socio-economic trajectories of minority ethnic groups over the ten-year period, and compare them both among themselves and with the white group.
(2) We shall compare the ethnic identities of minority ethnic groups in 1991 with those in 2001 of the same people, and trace possible changes in their identities.
(3) We shall examine the effects of gender, age, religion, parental class and education, whether first or second generation and whether child or adult when coming to Britain, parental and own intermarriage status, own education, health, and form-fill status etc. on any identity changes.
(4) We shall build multivariate statistical models to examine the relative importance of the independent variables on the changes.
(5) We shall link the possible changes in the ethnic identities with their changing socio-economic situations between 1991 and 2001 to see whether the changing identities are associated with socio-economic outcomes. For instance, how do people who called themselves Black in 1991 and British in 2001 compare with British whites in their socio-economic attainment in 2001 holding constant all other socio-cultural attributes?

On the whole, the study seeks to study the processes of social integration in British society over the past decade, and the extent to which anti-discrimination policies have been successfully implemented as reflected in the socio-economic attainment of minority ethnic groups. Furthermore, the findings from the study on the interrelations between changing ethnic identities and associated socio-economic situations will provide a solid basis on which to monitor future social policies aimed at addressing ethnic inequalities.

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