Ethnic Classification in International Context: A Cross-National Comparison of 1995-2004 Census Items

Ann Morning, New York University

Many national censuses categorize their populations by race, ethnicity, and/or origins; according to unpublished United Nations research, 65 percent of the countries surveyed enumerated their populations by national or ethnic group in the 1995-2004 census round. This paper analyzes a unique U.N. data set of 135 national census questionnaires, surveying the variety of approaches to ethnic enumeration taken and identifying several dimensions along which classification practices vary. This large-scale overview suggests several factors—historical, demographic and political—that merit attention when accounting for the evolution of ethnic categorization practices. Although the diversity of ethnic enumeration strategies poses problems for international data comparability, it also offers demographers a wealth of approaches to consider when revisiting their own national census schedules. I include a case study of the United States as an example of the ways in which international comparison highlights unusual national practices and offers models for future innovations in census-taking.

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Presented in Session 134: Problems of International Demographic Data