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A new picture of ethnic Britain 02 December 2011

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The availability of full Wave 1 data from Understanding Society opens up a host of exciting opportunities for researchers interested in ethnicity-related topics.

The ESRC’s Britain in 2012 magazine spoke to Lucinda Platt, who leads a team of researchers working on the ethnicity strand of the survey about how the survey will provide us with an up to date and accurate picture of ethnicity in the UK, the like of which has never been possible before.

Here we produce some extracts from the article written by Sarah Womack, with thanks to the ESRC’s Britain in 2012 Magazine.

At moments of national soul-searching such as the summer 2011 riots, the extent to which we know or understand Britain’s ethnic communities often appears lacking. Policymakers frequently seem ill-informed, whether they are discussing what makes some ethnic minorities more socially mobile than others or why one ethnic minority group feels more British than another.

Despite this lack of information, there has been no dedicated national survey of Britain’s main ethnic minority groups since 1994, and there has never been a survey in which substantial numbers of minority group members of all ages have been followed year after year. But Understanding Society, a new study of 40,000 British households, is about to change that by uncovering a wealth of information about our ethnic make-up.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and run by a world-class team of survey specialists at ISER, it is the largest study of its kind in the world. Understanding Society is representative of the population as a whole, but there’s an important addition – a supplementary sample of around 1,000 adults from each of the Black Caribbean, Black African, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities will enable a more detailed understanding of the education, employment, health, family structure, attitudes and experiences across and within ethnic groups. They will also be asked some further questions, not asked of the main sample, to enhance understanding of the UK’s minority groups.

The first wave of data collection took place over a two-year period and is about to become available. Results from the second and subsequent surveys will be released annually. Some of the information will enable comparisons between ethnic minorities and the white population, such as differences in employment, education, income, housing, partnership history, health, sleep, relationships, wellbeing, children’s aspirations, and bullying. But other information will relate particularly to aspects of minority groups’ experiences, such as experiences of harassment and perceptions of discrimination.

Lucinda Platt said:

“The extent to which people perceive processes of discrimination at work is in itself important, as is the extent of harassment experienced, or how fear of it constrains people from minority groups. This also ties in with debates around ethnic concentration, and its positive and negative aspects.”

Remittances – the transfer of money by an ethnic minority member to his or her ‘home’ country – are also an interesting area that will be covered by the study. Professor Platt, who leads on the ethnicity strand of Understanding Society, said:

“We would expect fewer remittances to be paid by the second generation, but the extent to which they persist, and among which groups and in what circumstances, is of great interest. In practical terms remittances restrict immediate spending power, and so can result in ‘hidden’ deprivation.”

She added:

“The information will enhance understanding in a huge range of ways, particular as the study matures and we have years of data. For the first time, it will be possible to explore questions such as does people’s strength of identity change with marriage, children, for example, and who you marry or where you live? Does people’s ill health – there are big differences in health across ethnic groups – cause them to lose their jobs, or does the ill-health follow on from unemployment or inactivity? Who is most affected by the recession and the cuts to public services, not only now but as time passes?”

Amidst intense debate around the impact of budget cuts, political competition over immigration targets and assertions of the need to belong – and with broad claims being bandied about who should have access to jobs – the ethnicity strand of Understanding Society will help provide a proper evidence base around these highly charged issues.

Photo credit: edgenumbers

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