Review of ethnicity harmonised standard: findings from phase 2 of our research

This report summarises the main findings from the second phase of our work to review the current ethnicity harmonised standard.

Read the first report about our initial findings.

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:24 July 2023
Owner:Government Statistical Service (GSS) Harmonisation Team
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics

The Government Statistical Service (GSS) Harmonisation team is based in the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The team:

  • is responsible for creating and embedding the Government’s “harmonised standards” for all topics
  • supports the harmonisation of data across the UK

Our work involves providing bespoke advice and harmonised standards and guidance about how data on different topic areas should be collected and presented. The standards and guidance are designed to improve the consistency, coherence and comparability of statistics.

Producers of statistics use these harmonised standards as a starting point in their data collection process. By using harmonised standards, they can:

Harmonised standards also allow people to effectively and accurately compare data that has been collected across different datasets. This means we can more easily understand what that data does, and does not, tell us. This ensures that statistics are being used to their full effect for the public good.


Ethnicity is a multifaceted and evolving topic. Various ways of measuring ethnic groups have been used over time. Our first research and engagement report presents the first set of findings from phase 1 of the discovery phase. The first report explained how some of the current ethnic group classifications we use in the harmonised standard may need changing. It also highlighted that people who use ethnicity data have multiple needs. Data users can find it difficult to work with the data because it is complex and measures multiple aspects of ethnicity.

This report summarises the main findings from the second phase of our work to review the current ethnicity harmonised standard. More specifically it:

  • summarises the findings from the second phase of our research and engagement work — this includes a continued exploration of the issues with the current standard and information about user needs
  • sets out the next steps for our future work
  • provides contextual information about what ethnicity is and about the current standard
  • sets out the reasons for this review, including the approach we took

As part of this review, we have worked with a variety of government stakeholders and the public to gather feedback on their experience of using the current standard. This includes asking about areas where these stakeholders feel the standard could be improved. We also gather this type of feedback when we review our other harmonised standards.

The publication of this phase 2 report concludes the discovery phase of our work for the new harmonised standard of ethnicity. The discovery phase included learning about the users of the current ethnicity harmonised standard and establishing whether we could improve the process for these users in a cost-effective way. We are publishing our second set of findings now to provide transparency and gather feedback on the work we have done so far. If you wish to provide comment, please contact the Harmonisation team at

Research and engagement findings: identified issues

Our first report identified 3 main high-level issues:

  • Issue 1: selecting a response option
  • Issue 2: terminology use and presentation
  • Issue 3: the Mixed category

We have found further evidence for these issues through our additional research activities.

Our research has also identified 3 new issues:

  • Issue 4: ethnicity means different things to different people
  • Issue 5: conflicting views on whether ethnicity can change over time
  • Issue 6: identifying with different ethnic groups can be affected by context

Evidence for these three issues emerged during our additional research activities.

Issue 1: selecting a response option

We found evidence for this issue in our initial research. Read our initial findings about the issue of selecting a response option.

We now have stronger evidence of the need for a multi-select option on the ethnic group question, as seen in censuses in the United States and Australia, for example. This is informed by the complexity of some people’s ethnicities.

Some respondents can be left feeling frustrated with the current harmonised standard because of the perceived lack of representation from the available tick-boxes. There is usually a write-in option, depending on the data collectors processing capabilities, but we have identified there is a persistent need for more flexibility in the tick-boxes.

Some people report feeling marginalised when they select “Other” as their ethnic group. It has been identified that some people do not understand the question stem of “What is your ethnic group?” when they are asked the ethnic group questions. This can be because people define ethnicity in ways that are specific to them.

We also found some people were confused by the logic behind the grouping of response options in the current harmonised standard. For example, some people are unclear about why certain continents and countries have been grouped together.

This frustration with the response options is mostly felt in self-complete modes of data collection. But we did find evidence that interviewers often attempt to help respondents answer the question when confusion arises. For instance, interviewers, when needed, will share the survey guidance with respondents. It is important to note that interviewers do not deviate from recommended practice to unwittingly bias responses to match their own definition of ethnicity. Other interviewers emphasise the importance of capturing how respondents think about their own identity.

Issue 2: terminology use and presentation

We found evidence for this issue in our initial research. Read our initial findings about terminology use and presentation.

We continued to identify that people feel frustrated about the ordering of the harmonised standard. This included frustration about:

  • “White” being listed first instead of alphabetical presentation of response options
  • why the only “British” tick box can be found under the high-level White category

This led some people to think the current presentation of the question was ethnocentric, in favour of the White British respondents.

The order of the response options highlighted issues around respondents mistrusting data collectors. This mistrust would often lead respondents to ask questions about why it was relevant to collect ethnicity data.

Collecting ethnicity data in censuses was understood to be acceptable and there is a general and specific understanding of the value of this data. Collecting ethnicity data was also considered acceptable if done for the “right purposes”, such as to monitor health or educational outcomes. But some people might not understand the relevance of collecting ethnicity data in certain official circumstances and this can lead to negative feelings such as annoyance or defensiveness.

We also identified that the act of giving information about ethnicity in official contexts could lead to racism, including examples of racial stereotyping and discrimination:

“One part of me is saying, why does where I’m from [matter]? Is it because you’re going to treat me differently if I put African or Indian compared to say if I put I’m English? …It makes me think that, now you’ve seen the application is there going to be some sort of unconscious bias now because you know I’m from Africa?”

—Quote gathered from our research with the Race Disparity Unit (RDU)

“Sometimes I do think about, like, you know, will there be any difference if I tick I’m Chinese, or if I tick I’m White? Do people assume that my English is not as good as White people?”

—Quote gathered from our research with RDU

Issue 3: the Mixed category

We found evidence for this issue in our initial research. Read our initial findings on the issues around the Mixed category.

“Not everyone that has a mixed heritage is mixed with white.”

—Quote gathered from the ONS interviewer’s survey

We found additional evidence that the Mixed category was too limited for people. This was largely informed by the ONS interviewer’s survey. The results from the survey:

  • suggested there should be additional Mixed options
  • highlighted the current Mixed categories only give options that begin with “White and…” — there are no options for other mixes of ethnicities, for example “Black and Asian”

Issue 4: ethnicity means different things to different people

We found evidence for this new issue during our additional research activities.

“You can’t say your ethnicity as one word. It’s so much more.”

—Quote gathered from our research with RDU

As has been well established in academic literature about ethnicity, our findings confirm that ethnicity means different things to different people. The main factors that were identified when describing your own ethnicity are:

  • links to family, specifically parents and grandparents
  • where you were born
  • heritage — culture and ways of living passed on from past generations
  • culture — including celebrations, food, values, style, and other elements
  • national identity — affiliations and connections with a country or nation
  • religion — whether you are practising or brought up in a specific religion
  • skin colour
  • language

It’s important to note that some people see these as individual defining factors, and other people may consider the concept of ethnicity to be influenced by a combination of these factors.

We found that the concepts of religion and skin colour were more contentious to include or exclude when defining ethnicity.

Nationality, which relates to an individual’s citizenship and can include which passports they have, was not viewed as a defining part of ethnicity.

Issue 5: conflicting views on whether ethnicity can change over time

We found evidence for this new issue during our additional research activities.

“When I came back to the UK, I didn’t class myself as British anymore, I classed myself as Irish.”

—Quote gathered from our research with RDU

“[My ethnicity] to me, wouldn’t change because, for me, it is who my mother and who my dad was.”

—Quote gathered from our research with RDU

Our research showed that some people feel that someone’s ethnicity can change over time, whereas some people consider ethnicity to be static. We identified that most people who consider ethnicity as a fluid concept feel this way because they consider ethnicity to be affected largely by national identity factors. National identity can develop and change over time. So, if a person considers national identity to be important to their definition of ethnicity, this explains how it can change.

People who consider ethnicity as fixed or static tend to define ethnicity more by genetics and what they have inherited from their parents and grandparents.

Issue 6: identifying with different ethnic groups can be affected by context

We found evidence for this new issue during our additional research activities.

“I feel really weird even if I’m, like, you know, filling a form, a document, I would definitely want to choose Indian over anything else because I just feel like the other person is going to judge my answer.”

—Quote gathered from our research with RDU

Our research has indicated that people can define their ethnicity and ethnic groups depending on the context. Sometimes, social situations allow for a more detailed description of a person’s ethnicity. This may mean people give a description of their ethnicity that has multiple different facets. But in other situations there can be a social desirability bias, such as when a person is completing things like surveys, a census, or job applications. This can encourage people to give certain responses when they consider aspects such as:

  • how they look, no matter how they feel
  • what they feel the interviewer or organisation is looking for
  • when there is no opportunity to explain the choice — unlike in social situations

As well as social desirability bias, people will sometimes simplify their ethnicity when reporting to reduce their respondent burden. This often happens when someone wants to complete a task more quickly. This means it is potentially more likely to happen in data collection contexts as opposed to other social contexts.

Research and engagement findings: identified user needs

You can read about the 6 user needs we first identified in our initial findings report.

We have identified 3 more user needs through our additional research activities.

User need 7: output alignment to census

Broadly, we found that harmonised standards are used for ethnic group data collection. We also found that, more widely, the outputs are usually aligned to the high-level 5 census categories:

  • Asian
  • Black
  • Mixed
  • White
  • Other

User need 8: current harmonised standard options are limited and there is a need for more detailed data

Our research has shown that some third sector organisations and local authorities need more detailed data to better support groups that are disadvantaged. This is in contrast to the findings in our first report about aggregating levels of ethnicity data. We will need to consider whether more detailed data could lead to problems with smaller communities being identifiable.

Some communities and local authorities identified that expanding the national identity response options within the standard could help. This is especially relevant when thinking about how to future-proof the questions in our ever-changing society.

There is also evidence that it would be better to allow people to choose any combination from the 5 high-level categories and the tick-box options that follow them, particularly when it is not possible to include a write-in option. For example, having the Irish ethnic group only under the “White” category does not allow for nuance in data collected for different communities.

User need 9: it is better to reduce the use of the “Other” category

Some third sector groups have identified that some people do not feel they fit into the category of “Other”. This means that using this category is problematic. Other charities comment that some people may not feel they are part of the UK if they select this option.



Through our research and engagement activities to date, we have confirmed that ethnicity is a multifaceted term that often means different things to different people. We also identified that some of the current ethnic group classifications we use in the harmonised standard will need to be changed.

People who use ethnicity data have multiple needs. They can find it difficult to work with the data because it is complex and measures multiple aspects of ethnicity. But the current categorisation of ethnicity does not fully support these complexities. People providing ethnicity data also face challenges because there are multiple ways ethnicity can be defined. This leads to issues with the current standard’s available response options.

What happens next

The GSS Harmonisation team’s plans for ethnicity will be updated once the Office for National Statistics’ public consultation on the future of population and migration statistics in England and Wales has concluded. This will allow us time to review this source of relevant responses from users about their needs. This information will also be used to inform our future research plans.

We welcome all input into the consultation. You can submit your views in response to the consultation until Thursday 26 October 2023.

Contact us

If you would like more information about the current ethnicity standard or the new standard, please contact the Harmonisation team at

Find out more about Harmonisation.

There is no single definition of ethnicity. It is a multi-faceted and subjective concept. We aggregate an individual’s subjectively defined ethnicity into ethnic groups to make meaningful statistics. People decide for themselves which ethnic group they belong to.

Because the concept of ethnicity is multifaceted, and constantly changing, there are various possible ways of measuring ethnic groups. Many different approaches have been used over time. These include measuring ethnicity using criteria such as:

  • common ancestry and elements of culture
  • identity
  • language
  • country of birth
  • physical appearance

Someone’s ethnicity is not a static concept. Ideas about what makes an ethnic group may change according to the context of social and political attitudes or developments. People can choose how they identify and define themselves when they are answering questions about ethnicity. Their answer might differ if they are asked the same question at different times or in different situations. It may also change if they are asked about their ethnicity for different purposes, or by different people.

The current ethnicity harmonised standard is based on the 2011 Census questions across the UK. The questions were reviewed and adjusted so they could be used in the:

This means that the 2021 and 2022 Census questions are, currently, the most up to date way of collecting data about ethnic groups.

We currently recommend using detailed ethnicity classifications wherever possible. This involves using the tick-boxes specified in our standard and giving respondents the opportunity to write-in more information if they select “Other” as their response option.

We also recommend considering using the national identity harmonised standard and the religion harmonised standard when asking any questions about ethnicity. This helps people provide a more detailed description of their cultural identity. You should ask the questions in the following order: national identity, ethnic group, and religion. Testing has shown that people consider the ethnic group question more acceptable if it is asked after the national identity question. By asking the questions in this order respondents are able to express their identity, regardless of their ethnic group.

As with ethnicity data, data collectors should ensure they have complied with the relevant data protection laws and principles to ensure there is a lawful basis to process these three types of data. You can find more information about question order on our national identity harmonised standard webpage.

We have also worked with the Cabinet Office’s Equality Hub on their standards for ethnicity data. The standards bring together best practice and guidance about ethnicity data. They give public sector data producers and data users information about how to best collect, analyse and report on ethnicity data. The standards include guidance and information on:

  • the importance of using harmonised standards
  • how to aggregate and analyse ethnic groups
  • the importance of understanding and reporting on missing ethnicity data

The Equality Hub’s work complements the GSS harmonised standards by providing additional support on ensuring trustworthiness, quality, and value, which are the 3 pillars of the Code of Practice for Statistics. The Equality Hub’s standards for ethnicity data clearly state that users should use the GSS harmonised standards. If the GSS harmonised standards have not been used, users must explain why, as required by the Code of Practice for Statistics.

ONS undertook extensive ethnicity research and public engagement activities as part of development of the 2021 Census ethnicity question. But we know that ethnicity definitions, terminology, and thinking are changing and developing.

Most of the question development for Census 2021 was completed before 2020. Many things have changed since then which may affect how people feel about ethnicity, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic and the disparities in outcomes and prevalence of COVID-19 between ethnic groups have shown there is a need for more detailed ethnicity data. The Inclusive Data Taskforce (IDTF) recommendations also identified a need to increase inclusivity in the ethnic group questions to better reflect the diversity of the population.

This review:

  • has added to previous work completed as part of the Census 2021 question development
  • has allowed us to consider a range of user needs and consider updating the standard to meet these needs
  • will ensure concepts are being measured clearly and appropriately in line with the IDTF’s recommendations
  • will ensure our ethnicity standard reflects the diversity of the population

The review also presents information about activities that have been completed to build trust with people supplying data and people using data to improve inclusion.

To complete this review, we have continued work highlighted in the first findings report, and also conducted some new research.

Continued desk research

Our research activities included:

  • reviewing published academic literature and current initiatives, such as research and analysis published by the Race Disparity Unit (RDU)
  • analysing queries and feedback received by the ONS and GSS from members of the public and organisations about the current ethnicity question

Continued engagement with people who use or collect ethnicity survey data

Our research activities included:

  • working with the Ethnic Group and Religion Assurance Panel — this is a group of stakeholders and independent experts brought together by the ONS
  • working with the Harmonisation Champions — this is a network of representatives across government and non-governmental organisations

Continued engagement with people who use or collect ethnicity administrative data

Our research activities included gathering feedback from:

  • administrative data collectors about the collection of ethnicity data
  • government departments and the Devolved Administrations
  • people who review and explore data linkage from administrative sources — this helped us understand user needs about how this data is collected at source

Continued engagement with the public

Our research activities included reviewing queries received by ONS regarding the Census 2021 ethnicity question. This includes comments from members of the public and organisations.

New research

Our research activities included:

  • exploring ONS interviewers’ experiences of asking the question “What is your ethnicity?”
  • working with the RDU to explore the public’s perceptions of ethnicity terminology
  • conducting community and Local Authority engagement sessions to identify user needs for the ethnicity harmonised standard

ONS Interviewer’s survey

Our 2022 survey of ONS interviewers was designed to capture how interviewers experienced asking respondents questions on ethnicity, disability, and mental health. These findings have helped to inform our work producing harmonised standards for these topics.

From our sample of 148 completed surveys:

  • 48% of interviewers were telephone operators
  • 46% of interviewers were from the field force
  • the remaining 6% of interviewers had experience using both data collection methods

Community engagement research

We ran online workshops with 15 community organisations who work with ethnicity data by collecting or processing it, or have an interest in ethnicity data. The organisations were represented by 20 participants.

Research gathered the community organisations’ needs in relation to ethnicity data in the following ways:

  • how they collect the data and process data
  • how they use ethnicity data in their work
  • what they perceive to be missing from the data they use and what they might need to improve their work
  • their views on the current harmonised standard

Qualitative data was coded and analysed using a thematic analysis.

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