How to Define Ethnicity

Ethnic monitoring only became mandatory in publicly funded mental health services in 1995. Therefore, little reliable data has been available on how minority ethic groups are treated by mental health services in England and Wales.

The Healthcare Commission concludes in its 2005 Count me in report that poor ethnic monitoring ‘shows both lack of understanding of the value of having such data for planning services, and removes from services information that is needed to ensure that individual patients receive culturally sensitive and relevant care.’

However, people who do record and monitor ethnicity frequently find it a complex task. One reason for this is that individuals’ and groups’ perceptions of what group they belong to will vary according to views and perceptions held by the individual and by society. For example, some people of African origin who are born in the UK might perceive themselves as Black African; others might prefer to classify themselves as Black British. People from the Indian subcontinent might want to define themselves as, for example, Gujaratis or Punjabis; but in the 2001 Census they were offered the options of ‘Indian’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘other Asian’.

How ethnicity is defined will change over time because of social and political attitudes; for example, in 1976, Office of Population Censuses and Surveys referred to the minority ethnic population as ‘the population of New Commonwealth and Pakistan ethnic origin.’

As perceptions and attitudes change it is important to note that an ethnic group classification can only be valid and meaningful for the time and context in which it is used.

An individual’s perception of what ethnic group he or she belongs to may be different to the perception of what group that person is seen as belonging to by the person who is recording and monitoring ethnicity. In A practical guide to ethnic monitoring in the NHS and social care the Department of Health suggest that a person should assign their own ethnic group. People should not be assigned their ethnicity by staff.

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