Survey Researchers Foster Confusion When They Ask About Race And Ethnicity

Survey researchers foster confusion when they ask about race and ethnicity–and they acknowledge they’re doing so!–and, because they’re addicted to asking, they continue to ask about race and ethnicity.

As stated in the Newsletter below, which I received from a university survey research center, one reason survey researchers confuse respondents when they ask about race and ethnicity is that, as they acknowledge, “[r]ace and ethnicity . . . [are] evolving social constructs.”  That is, the meanings of “race” and “ethnicity” for both askers and respondents changes over time, so at the time of asking it’s not at all clear what these two words mean for askers and respondents and, thus, no way to know if “race” and “ethnicity” have the same same meaning for asker and answerer.  TALK ABOUT CONFUSION!

Also, asking about race and ethnicity  “requires [2] separate questions. . . . [R]ace is classified into five [5] groups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White.”   2 questions, 5 categories in one question and “[i]n addition, respondents are provided the opportunity to self-identify with more than one [1-2] racial category.” And the ethnicity question–are you of Hispanic or Latino origin–is asked before rather than after the race question.  Lots of variables here: 2 questions, multiple categories in each, may or may not select more than one category.  TALK ABOUT CONFUSION!  

Askers acknowledge in the Newsletter (below) they’re confusing respondents: “there are several concerns with this approach to measuring these constructs. For many respondents, there remains confusion regarding the differences between measures of race and ethnicity. In addition, these items restrict concern with ethnicity to Hispanic vs. non-Hispanic status only, while the concept of ethnicity is generally viewed as having a far broader meaning. TALK ABOUT CONFUSION!  

Also, the notion that there are five types/races of humans: “American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White” is absurd and further contributes to the confusion surrounding these matters.  Survey researchers are not alone in perpetuating this confusion.  What we need to remember is that all humans are members of the human species.  Biologically, we’re all members of the same group/category: human.  Some humans are indigenous to the lower 48, others to Alaska, or Africa, etc., etc.

No. 113

Federal Standards for Measuring Race & Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are commonly recorded in surveys conducted in the U.S. Ironically, there is no generally agreed upon standard for measuring these important, and evolving, social constructs. One existing standard was established by the U.S. government’s Office of Management and Budget in 1977 and revised in 1997. These standards were designed to insure consistency in reporting of race and ethnicity as part of efforts to monitor equal protection and civil rights compliance.

This approach requires separate questions to measure racial vs. ethnic identity. Here, race is classified into five groups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. In addition, respondents are provided the opportunity to self-identify with more than one racial category. Ethnicity is designed to be asked before the race question and is used to classify persons as to whether or not they are of Hispanic or Latino origin.

This basic classification scheme for race and ethnicity continues to be used today in federal statistical surveys, and by many other researchers. While useful for many purposes, there are several concerns with this approach to measuring these constructs. For many respondents, there remains confusion regarding the differences between measures of race and ethnicity. In addition, these items restrict concern with ethnicity to Hispanic vs. non-Hispanic status only, while the concept of ethnicity is generally viewed as having a far broader meaning. Non-federal researchers, of course, are free to employ other measures of race and ethnicity that may be more appropriate to their specific research needs. A future News Bulletin will review some of those approaches.

About georgebeam

George Beam is an educator and author. The perspectives that inform his interpretations of the topics of this blog–-as well as his other writings and university courses -–are system analysis, behaviorism, and Internet effects. Specific interests include quality management, methodology, and politics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Administration; Affiliated Faculty, Department of Political Science; and, previously, Head, Department of Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
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