Monday, 15 April 2019

We count Pitcairn Islanders in New Zealand. Why not Timorese?

New Zealand has a standard classification of ethnicity that allows Statistics New Zealand (or other government agencies) to describe the ethnicity of people in a way that is consistent and comparable across all government agencies. The classification has four levels. The top level has essentially six categories: (1) European; (2) Māori; (3) Pacific Peoples; (4) Asian; (5) Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African (MELAA); and (6) Other ethnicities. For a long time, I've been critical of the Pacific, Asian, and MELAA groups as merging some extremely heterogeneous populations into a single category. For instance, the Asian group includes Japanese, Fijian Indian, and Afghani people, as if they were all in some way similar. The MELAA group is an even bigger nonsense.

Many researchers use data at the top level of the classification in a fairly uncritical way. Even those who view the data with a healthy dose of scepticism are forced to use it when it is the only level of data that is available. The level of ethnic disaggregation often depends on whether you are looking at the national level, the regional level, or more locally (and relates to the point I discussed in my post yesterday - in that research we used Level 2 ethnicity data, but previous researchers had focused on Level 1). For instance, below the national level, the data produced by Statistics New Zealand is often aggregated to Level 1 or Level 2 of the ethnic classification (for example, the Census data available at NZ.Stat is only available at Level 2 for territorial authorities, and for most of the cross-tabulations it is only available at Level 1). Consequently, most of the research (especially health research) I have seen uses the Level 1 classification.

The New Zealand Herald picked up on this issue in a story this morning:
An immigration expert has slammed what he sees as New Zealand's systemic failure to recognise minority ethnic and religious communities.
This comes after Statistics New Zealand revealed that one in seven failed to fully complete Census 2018.
Massey University sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley said the use of "crude categorisations" like Asian and Pasifika by authorities hid important differences and the true diversity of the nation.
Census participants were asked to list their race and ethnic origin. But those who identified with an "infrequent" or "unanticipated ethnic group" were put under a "not elsewhere classified" group.
Of course, the classification works that way for good statistical reasons. The smaller the number of people in an ethnic group, the greater the statistical error in any research that involves them, or in any table of data or cross-tabulation involving that group. And the smaller the group, the more likely that publishing numbers related to that group inadvertently compromises the confidentiality of the data. So, even if data were published related to small ethnic groups, there would be a lot of data suppressed due to small numbers. The standard classification of ethnicity tries to minimise this problem by grouping ethnic groups that have small numbers into the "not elsewhere classified" groups.

However, Paul makes an excellent point. So, let's have a look at those "not elsewhere classified" (NEC) ethnic groups, focusing on the Asian Level 1 ethnic group.

At Level 4 of the standard classification of ethnicity, the following groups fit under the Asian category [*]: Filipino; Cambodian; Vietnamese; Burmese; Indonesian; Lao; Malay; Thai; Karen; Chin; Southeast Asian NEC; Hong Kong Chinese; Cambodian Chinese; Malaysian Chinese; Singaporean Chinese; Vietnamese Chinese; Taiwanese; Chinese NEC; Bengali; Fijian Indian; Indian Tamil; Punjabi; Sikh; Anglo Indian; Malaysian Indian; South African Indian; Indian NEC; Sinhalese; Sri Lankan Tamil; Sri Lankan NEC; Japanese; Korean; Afghani; Bangladeshi; Nepalese; Pakistani; Tibetan; Eurasian; Bhutanese; Maldivian; Mongolian; and Asian NEC.

That is a lot of groups, but there are some notable omissions. Essentially it would be impossible to find any data from Statistics New Zealand or any government agency on any Asian group that does not appear on that list. The New Zealand Herald highlighted the omission of the Peranakan group in an article today, but we could add Timorese, Uighur, Rohingya, and any number of other small (and marginalised) groups, for which having access to data would be useful. I expect that Timorese and Rohingya are included in the Southeast Asian NEC category, but it would be hard to know (there is no detail in the classification to tell us).

Uighur might be included in the catch-all "Eurasian" group, which presumably also includes the Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkic, and Kyrgyz ethnic groups, etc. You might argue that these groups are small, and similar enough to group together, but I expect they would disagree. Or maybe the Uighur are in the Chinese NEC category. Again, it is hard to know.

The Pacific Peoples category has similar cases (for example, no category for Marshall Islanders, Palauans, or even Micronesians more generally). Don't get me started on the MELAA group - this post might end up thousands of words long.

The argument for 'ignoring' these groups, or merging them into other groups or into an NEC category is, as I noted above, in order to ensure that the merged groups are large enough to count. However, what constitutes an ethnic group that is 'too small to count' in Level 4 of the classification must be fairly arbitrary. Level 4 includes a category for Pitcairn Islander. Pitcairn Island has a permanent population of 50, so how many of them could possibly be living in New Zealand?

If we can count Pitcairn Islanders (population in the home location of 50), then surely we can count Timorese (1.3 million, in Timor-Leste, plus more in the western half of the island), Rohingya (around 1-1.3 million), or Uighurs (over 12 million). Not to mention the hundreds of other ethnic groups with small numbers in New Zealand. It's time to refresh New Zealand's standard classification of ethnicities to ensure that all minority groups count, and are counted.


[*] I'm ignoring the "not further defined" category, which is where we know what category the person belongs to based on a higher level of the classification, but not at Level 4. That might occur, for instance, if someone says they are "Southeast Asian", which is a category at Level 2 of the classification, but not at Level 4.

No comments:

Post a Comment