Does ethnicity really exist? Certainly in the field of measuring ethnicity it is proving an increasingly fraught issue for the state. The fact that Statistics NZ has to keep changing the way that it measures ethnicity not only shows that ethnicity is an elastic and amorphous concept, but that it’s generally a highly problematic one which is quickly becoming an unhelpful way of understanding society. Prof Paul Spoonley has been critical of the creation of a new ethnic group called ‘New Zealander’. He calls into question how helpful and accurate such a new category is. Yet the category reflects the reality of how people perceive themselves ethnicly - 429,429 people (or 11.1% of the population) choose this group as their ethnicity in the last census. Raybon Kan has also written an excellent – but less humourous than usual – column in the SST, refuting the way that the state lumps some ethnicities together but not others. [Read more below]
Raybon Kan finds it surprising that such distinctly different ethnicities as Indian and Chinese – that is 1b Indians and 1.3b Chinese worldwide - are thrown together as ‘Asian’, yet very similar and smaller ethnic groups like Maori and Polynesian are separated out. Even Cook Island Maori are put into the Pacific Peoples group. And why he asks are Pacific Islanders referred to now by the state as ‘Pacific People’ and Asians aren’t equally ‘people’? Likewise, he points out that ‘Japan is in the Pacific: why aren't they Pacific Peoples? Racially, the Japanese have about as much in common with Samoans as they do with Indians’. Some good questions.
The bigger question is: how useful is the concept of ethnicity? The term and concept has now generally supplanted the former use of the term 'race'. Generally race is seen as a biological concept and is now rejected as having any biological basis at all. The bulk of variation in terms of biology is actually within so-called ‘races’ rather than between them, for instance. The term ethnicity, however, is usually applied in a social-cultural way.
Even the concept ethnicity is rather contradictory. For instance, Robert Miles, possibly the most significant sociologist writing about ‘race’ in the past 30-40 years is highly critical of the concept ethnicity as well as ‘race’. He argues quite convincing that it is used by academics as a replacement for race now that it is impossible to use race because we know there is no such thing as race. But it is used in the same way as race and so is just as problematic. On the other hand, David Pearson also argues fairly convincingly that ethnicity is useful because we need some concept to describe different population groups other than terms like nationality and nations. The problem of course, as argued by Miles, is that the arbitrariness of ethnicity - while often occurring innocently - is also typically used to rationalise or justify unequal allocations of resources.