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Classification of ethnicity in New Zealand

Statistical standard for ethnicity

A statistical classification is a way to group a set of related categories in a meaningful, systematic, and standard format. New Zealand statistical standards and classifications are designed for use across official statistics collections, both for Statistics NZ and other agencies. We compare the collection of ethnicity in the 2013 Census and the relevant administrative data sources with the official ethnicity standard and classification.

The statistical standard for ethnicity defines ethnicity as follows:

Ethnicity is the ethnic group or groups that people identify with or feel they belong to. Ethnicity is a measure of cultural affiliation, as opposed to race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship. Ethnicity is self-perceived and people can belong to more than one ethnic group.

An ethnic group is made up of people who have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • a common proper name
  • one or more elements of common culture which need not be specified, but may include religion, customs, or language
  • unique community of interests, feelings, and actions
  • a shared sense of common origins or ancestry
  • a common geographic origin.

Classification of ethnicity

The 2005 New Zealand standard classification of ethnicity is a hierarchical classification of four levels. Level 1 of the classification has six categories and is used solely for output, not for collection. Apart from Māori, level 1 categories are ethnic groups, not ethnicities as such.

Ethnicity level 1 categories:

1 European
2 Māori
3 Pacific Peoples
4 Asian
5 Middle Eastern/Latin American/African (MELAA)
6 Other ethnicity
9 Residual categories

Level 2 has 21 categories, which include the larger ethnicities within the level 1 groups – for example New Zealand European, Samoan, Indian, and African. Level 3 has 36 categories, and level 4 has 233 categories (excluding residual categories). Individual ethnicities are aggregated into progressively broader ethnic groupings from level 3 up to level 1, according to geographical location or origin, or cultural similarities.

When collecting ethnicity information, people need to be able to state their specific ethnicities without being forced to identify themselves in a more general category grouping of ethnicities. The standard is designed so that detailed ethnic group information can be collected and responses can be classified to specific ethnic group categories at a detailed level of the classification. Where it is not possible to collect data at level 4 of the classification, for instance in administrative data collections where written responses are not able to be coded, ethnic group information should be collected at level 2 of the classification, which is less detailed.


The presence of multiple ethnicities for the same person needs to be taken into account when reporting ethnic results. In the 2013 Census, 10 percent of individuals identified with two or more level 1 ethnic groups.

There are two standard outputs for ethnicity data:

  • Total response data, in which individuals are counted in all of their reported ethnic groups. A person who reported their ethnicities as, for example, English, Irish, and Māori, will be counted once in the European category and once in the Māori category for level 1 outputs. The number of grouped total responses will be greater than the total population, as individuals can provide more than one response.
  • Single and combination data, which counts people in mutually exclusive categories. People reporting two or more ethnic groups are counted once in the relevant 'combination' group. This means that the total number of responses equals the total number of people who stated their ethnicity. In the above example, this person would be counted once in the ‘European and Māori’ combination at level 1.

Total response data, grouped total response data, and single/combination data are considered the best means of outputting ethnicity data (Kukutai & Statistics New Zealand, 2008).

We use both total response classifications and single/combination classifications in this paper.

A further type of output, largely discontinued following the 2004 Review of the Measurement of Ethnicity (Statistics New Zealand, 2004) but still used by some administrative collections, is called prioritisation of ethnicity. This ensures that the total number of responses equals the total population. In doing so, prioritisation conceals diversity within and overlapping between ethnic groups by eliminating multiple ethnicities from data (Statistics New Zealand, 2006). This systematic prioritisation of the data gives highest priority to Māori – meaning, for example, an individual who might self-identify as both Pacific and Māori would be counted as Māori. 

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