Why the Census includes a question about ancestry

For the 2011 Census, the objective of the question on ancestry is to gain a better understanding of a person's ethnic background, particularly for Australians who have recently arrived. A person's ancestry, when used in conjunction with the person's birthplace, language and religion, and whether the person's parents were born in Australia or overseas, provides a good indication of the ethnic background of first and second generation Australians.

Ancestry data also help to identify the distinct cultural groups within Australia, such as Maoris or Australian South Sea Islanders, and groups that are spread across countries, such as Kurds or Indians. Country of birth data alone cannot identify these groups. Identification of these groups is essential for planning and for the effective delivery of services to particular ethnic communities.

Ancestry in earlier Censuses

Ancestry was first included as a question in the 1986 Census. The aim of the question was to measure the ethnic composition of the population as a whole. Evaluation showed that it was not useful for this purpose as there was a high level of subjectivity and confusion about what the question meant, particularly for those people whose families had been in Australia for many generations. Very little use was made of the ancestry data from the 1986 Census. As a consequence, ancestry was not included in either the 1991 or 1996 Censuses.

However, leading up to the 2001 Census, the ABS established a Census Consultative Group on Ancestry, with the objectives of:
  • seeking user input
  • identifying user requirements for these data
  • researching international practices
  • developing and testing questions that would provide acceptable and accurate data at a reasonable cost.

The conclusion of the Consultative Group was that major policy issues required data about those people who were born overseas themselves, or whose parents were born overseas. It was considered that an ancestry question, in combination with a question on whether the person's parents were born in Australia or overseas, would produce the desired information.

Ancestry in the 2011 Census

For the 2011 Census, as with 2006, respondents were asked to mark the ancestries they most closely identified with and to consider their ancestry back as far as two generations (i.e. their parents and grandparents). Respondents were asked to report at least one ancestry, but no more than two ancestries (see Figure 1). The instructions differed from the 2001 Census where respondents were asked to 'Provide more than one ancestry if necessary', and to consider their parents, grandparents and great grandparents.

Because Ancestry is a multi-response question in the Census, responses were coded into two variables - ANC1P (first response) and ANC2P (second response). Depending on the number of responses given, some people are recorded with one ancestry while others have two. This means that the number of responses for a particular ancestry for a geographic area may be greater than the number of people in that area. There is no ranking of responses, so if a respondent reports two ancestries, both answers have equal standing.

Question 18 as it appeared on the 2011 Census Household Form
Image of question 18 from the 2011 Census
A text only version of this question is also available.

The ancestry classification

For the 2011 Census, Ancestry is classified to the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups (ASCCEG). This classification has been updated since the 2006 Census, when the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups (ASCCEG) Second Edition, 2005 (cat. no. 1249.0) was used to classify Ancestry.

The revision of the ancestry classification is part of a periodical review process. A minor review was conducted in 2011 to maintain the classification's relevance and usability, and to reflect the changes to Australia's cultural and ethnic profile brought about by changing immigration patterns. Following the review, one narrow group was added and the classification at the base four digit level was expanded from 231 to 275 cultural and ethnic groups. There have been no structural changes at the broad group level.

See also:
Ancestry - Serbian
Ancestry - Sri Lankan/Sinhalese/Tamil.

The ancestry classification is based on:
  • the geographic area in which a group originated or developed
  • the similarity of cultural and ethnic groups in terms of social and cultural characteristics.

The ABS developed this classification to satisfy wide community interest in the ethnic and cultural composition of the Australian population and the characteristics of particular migrant community groups. The classification is intended to provide a standard to meet a growing statistical, administrative and service delivery need for data relating to these interests.

The ASCCEG classification for ethnicity is based on the self-perceived group identification approach, which uses a self-assessed response to a direct question. This approach measures the extent to which individuals associate with particular cultural or ethnic groups.

Further information on this subject is available in the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups (ASCCEG), Second Edition, Revision 1 (cat. no. 1249.0).

Related variables

The measurement of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Australian population, and the degree to which Australians retain their ethnic and cultural identity, is primarily based on the use of a number of Census variables related to a person's origin, including: Ancestry (ANC1P/ANC2P/ANCP), Birthplace of Female Parent (BPFP), Birthplace of Male Parent (BPMP), Birthplace of Parents (BPPP), Country of Birth of Person (BPLP), Religious Affiliation (RELP), Year of Arrival in Australia (YARP), Indigenous Status (INGP) and language variables such as Language Spoken at Home (LANP) and Proficiency in Spoken English (ENGP).