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This paper explores the notion of 'ethnic group' focussing, in particular, on attempts to transform the concept into an empirical indicator in population censuses. The latter is seen to be riven with difficulties, not least the fact that such measures tend to be attempting to address two conflicting agendas - one requiring an ascriptive, the other a subjective, measure. Illustrating the core arguments with the decennial census in Britain, the paper explores the contested political terrain underpinning the introduction of such a question, and then demonstrates that the construction of an 'ethnic group' indicator takes the form of a complex dialectical process involving negotiation and re-negotiation on the part of a myriad of social actors and structural forces at macro-, meso- and micro-levels. Finally, it reflects on broader concerns arising from the reification of the measure, not least its material effects in the context of debates and policies on 'multiculturalism'. © 2013 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Intercultural Studies

Publication Date





303 - 320