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1289.0 - Standards for Statistics on Cultural and Language Diversity, 1999  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 22/11/1999   
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Contents >> Ancestry >> Underlying concepts

Name of variable

8. The standard name of the variable is Ancestry.


Definition of variable

Nominal definition

9. Ancestry describes the ethnic or cultural heritage of a person, that is, the ethnic or cultural groups to which a person's forebears are or were attached.

10. Ancestry is an attribute of the counting unit 'person'.

Operational definition

11. Operationally, Ancestry is defined as the ethnic or cultural groups which a person identifies as being his or her ancestry. For example, a respondent may indicate four ancestries because each grandparent is from a different ethnic or cultural background (say Italian, Greek, German, English). However, another person with the same ancestry may choose to identify as 'Australian' because one or both parents were born in Australia, or because of a cultural or national attachment to this country. Ancestry therefore involves measures of self-identification of ethnic or cultural group affiliation or nationality as well as of descent from one or more particular groups.


Discussion of conceptual issues

12. Ancestry describes the ethnic heritage of a person, that is, the ethnic or cultural group to which a person's forebears are/were attached.

13. The Ancestry variable can be used in conjunction with the Country of Birth variables, Indigenous Status, Religious Affiliation, and language variables to identify particular ethnic or cultural groups. However, ancestry in the Australian context is problematic as there are many Australians with origins and heritage which do not, in practice, relate to their current ethnic identity. Ancestry data alone, therefore, are not considered to be a particularly good measure of service needs and the extent to which persons from certain backgrounds are associated with advantage or disadvantage, and should only be used as a broad measure of cultural diversity. It should be noted however, that a major advantage of the Ancestry variable is that it is able to measure an association with ethnic and cultural groups which do not equate directly to countries or languages and thus cannot be readily identified using country of birth or language variables. For instance the Ancestry variable assists in the identification and measurement of ethnic and cultural minorities which exist or originate within particular countries, ethnic and cultural groups which form a distinct unbroken geographic block across neighbouring country borders, and ethnic and cultural groups which are located in many disparate countries across the world.

14. It should be noted that many people in Australia have a variety of cultural backgrounds and do not relate to a single ethnic or cultural group. These people will give multiple responses to a question on ancestry, ethnicity or cultural identity. Often the responses will indicate an identification with Australia in a national or cultural sense, but will also acknowledge continuing ties with other ethnic or cultural groups (e.g. Irish Australian, Italian Australian). This does not mean that people who identify primarily with other ethnicities, ancestries or cultures do not also regard themselves as Australian in most senses. The problem is with the terminology. "Australian" is used as the adjective to describe the culture that has developed in this country over the last two hundred years, and also to describe all members of the citizenry regardless of whether or not they regard their ethnicity, culture or ancestry as Australian.

15. A question on each person's Ancestry, was asked for the first time in the 1986 Census. This was the result of investigation by the 1986 Population Census Ethnicity Committee on the need for data on ethnicity other than language, country of birth or country of birth of parents. The question was designed to identify the respondent's origin rather than a subjective perception of their ethnic background. Even so, some subjectivity was involved because of broad interpretations of what the term ancestry meant and confusion as to what was required.

16. Evaluation of the 1986 Census results found Ancestry data did not add to data already obtained on language and birthplace for very many cultural groups. However, it did provide some additional information on some cultural groups, members of which are born in many countries (e.g. people of Chinese and Indian ancestries) or distinct groupings within a country (e.g. Maoris as a subset of people born in New Zealand). The additional information was less useful where the person had already indicated use of a language spoken by the cultural group (e.g. Cantonese or Hindi).


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