The utility and validity for public health of ethnicity categorization in the 1991, 2001 and 2011 British Censuses

Public Health. 2011 Oct;125(10):680-7. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2011.05.001. Epub 2011 Sep 9.


Objectives: To evaluate the utility and validity of the ethnicity categorizations across the 1991, 2001 and 2011 British Censuses for public health purposes.

Study design: Narrative review.

Methods: A review of journal literature and census and other policy reports was undertaken to assess specified criteria for the utility and validity of the 1991, 2001 and 2011 Censuses for public health.

Results: The census ethnicity categorization satisfactorily captures the ethnic diversity of the population, and adheres to the principle of self-identification in the labels used and underlying conceptual base. The stability of some of the categories (especially 'Black' groups and 'Mixed') continues to be problematic for public health. Concealed heterogeneity has been partially addressed in the 'White' group but remains in the 'Black African' group. Colour categories ('White' and 'Black') have been retained in the 2011 Census, with only limited objection amongst the communities they describe.

Conclusions: The complexity of the classifications and range of data on the dimensions of ethnicity have increased over the three decades. The breakdown of the 'Black African' group, the shortcomings of 'Mixed' categorization, and the way in which the 'White' category is subdivided require further investigation.

Publication types

  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Censuses*
  • Continental Population Groups / classification*
  • Ethnic Groups / classification*
  • Humans
  • Review Literature as Topic
  • United Kingdom