Results from a longitudinal study

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How much and for whom does self-identified ethnicity

change over time in New Zealand?

How much and for whom does self-identified ethnicity

change over time in New Zealand?



Kristie N Carter0

Michael Hayward

Tony Blakely

Caroline Shaw

Health Inequalities Research Programme

School of Medicine and Health Sciences

University of Otago


Ethnicity is often assumed to be a stable construct. However, much research in New Zealand has shown growth in the number of people reporting multiple ethnicities and changes in the ethnic composition of New Zealand, which may reflect social changes as well as changes in the construct of ethnicity. This study uses three years of data from the longitudinal Survey of Family, Income and Employment (SoFIE) to examine changes in self-identified ethnicity. Self-defined ethnicity is recorded every year and participants may record multiple ethnicities. A change in ethnicity was defined as any change in the reported ethnic group(s) of an individual over the first three waves of SoFIE. Overall, 8% of respondents changed ethnicity at least once during the three waves of the survey. The strongest predictor of changing self-identified ethnicity was Māori, Pacific and Asian ethnicity at wave 1, as well as reporting more than one ethnic group. Individuals who changed ethnicity were also more likely to be younger, to be born overseas, to live in a family with children, to belong to more deprived groups, and to have poorer self-rated health. This exploratory analysis has shown fluidity in the concept of self-identified ethnicity, but more longitudinal research is needed to further clarify the (in)stability of ethnicity over time.


Ethnicity matters. It matters for individuals, for groups and for our nation. It matters in terms of shaping individual identity, understanding inequalities and targeting policy across a wide range of areas such as health, education and welfare. In New Zealand much work has been done on defining and measuring ethnicity, but it remains a challenging, and fluid, area (Statistics New Zealand 2004, Callister et al. 2008).

The concept that individuals should identify their own ethnicity is well established in New Zealand. However, an individual’s ethnic identity is part of a wider social process and is influenced by their own perceptions of ethnicity and what they perceive others’ perceptions are, within the world in which they live (Fenton 1999). Often it is assumed (if only as a simplification) that ethnicity is fixed over time and that ethnic boundaries are well defined. In reality an individual will identify with more than one ethnic group and/or may change their ethnic identity over time or in different environments (Callister et al. 2008). Indeed, affiliation with more than one ethnic group is relatively common: in the 2006 census 7.8% of respondents aged 15 years and older reported multiple ethnic groups (Statistics New Zealand 2007). Affiliation with multiple ethnic groups was highest in younger age groups and among those recording Māori or Pacific as one of their ethnic groups.
Ethnic mobility is defined as a change in ethnic affiliation over time. It is an important aspect of social change and represents an area of considerable interest, both in New Zealand and internationally. There are three possible sources of change in responses about ethnic affiliation: unreliability in measurement, changes due to alterations in the ethnicity question, and (the focus of this paper) conscious changes in ethnicity (Simpson and Akinwale 2007). Conscious changes may involve an alteration of ethnic identification (switching from one ethnicity to another), the addition of an ethnic group to (complexification), or deletion of a group from (simplification), a previous set of identifications.
Conscious changes in ethnic affiliation(s) may occur for any number of reasons. For example, changes may occur when children reach an age when they define ethnicity for themselves rather than having it determined by a parent or guardian (Kukutai 2008). People may answer a census question differently to how they answer a hospital form; the former may be construed as an opportunity to make a more political statement (e.g. the “New Zealander” response is far more common on census data than in other administrative data sets), and the census is answered in the privacy of one’s home (Callister et al. 2008).
There are a number of other reasons for people identifying their ethnicity differently over time or context, such as social stigmatisation or alienation, changes in personal, professional or social groups, or changes in the political or economic society. Comparing ethnic group responses between different data sets in New Zealand may be invalid because the environment or context can change responses. In Canada, for example, Guimond (2006) found that the census count of the population with aboriginal origin went from 711,000 to 1,102,000 persons, with a large part of this growth occurring between 1986 and 1991. He noted that this fast growth could not be explained by natural and migratory increases alone, and that much ethnic mobility was occurring. This growth was particularly strong in urban areas and was associated with a strong rise in the post-secondary-educated graduates of aboriginal origin. Guimond concluded that it is important to understand legislative and social changes that may be a source of ethnic mobility. Each ethnic response is “valid” at the time and within the context in which it was asked.
In New Zealand, research into ethnic mobility has been limited. However, in a cross-sectional study of inter-censal change, Coope and Piesse (2000) found there was considerable mobility within some ethnic groups, with, for example, a 23% inflow and 6% outflow for the Māori ethnic group in 1996 compared to the 1991 group (Coope and Piesse 2000). There are a number of possible reasons for this, including changes in the ethnicity question between censuses, changes in the socio-political environment, ethnogenesis (the establishment of new ethnic categories such as “New Zealander”), and intermarriage (Callister et al. 2005, Howard and Didham 2005, Kukutai 2007, Callister et al. 2008), as well as changes in the political structure.
In-depth analysis of changes in ethnicity and the factors associated with such mobility is only possible using consistent questions repeated over several years of a longitudinal study for the same individuals.0 There is, however, no such published New Zealand empirical research, so in this exploratory analysis we outline changes in self-identified ethnicity over the first three waves of the longitudinal Survey of Family, Income, and Employment (SoFIE). The ethnicity question was asked directly of participants, face to face in their own home, at each consecutive wave without the interviewer or interviewee having access to responses to previous waves. Specifically, the research questions addressed in this paper are:

  • What proportion of people changed their self-identified ethnicity over the three years?

  • How does this proportion vary by individual socio-demographics?

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