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2001 Census of Population and Dwellings: Change in ethnicity question


There has been a key change in the wording of the question in the Census of Population and Dwellings that asks about ethnicity. This change impacts on the comparability of data across Censuses. The question in 2001 was almost the same as that asked in the 1991 Census but differs to that asked in 1996.

The question was designed to measure ethnicity based on cultural affiliation. Statistics New Zealand research indicated that the 1991 question provided a better measure of this concept than the 1996 question. There were some significant changes in response in 1996 that could be attributed to the wording of the question rather than changes in the population. These were:

  • increased multiple response (people identifying more than one ethnicity)
  • a consequent reduction in single responses
  • a tendency for respondents to answer the 1996 question on the basis of ancestry (or descent) rather than ethnicity (or cultural affiliation).

Hence a decision was made, after user consultation, to reuse the format of the 1991 question with some minor changes. Users of census information need to be aware of this inconsistency in population counts between 1991 and 1996 and again between 1996 and 2001. Data between 1991 and 2001 may be little affected by the format of the question and should better reflect the population changes.


Information note

This note is to assist users of census information on ethnicity. Changes to the form of the ethnicity questions used in the 1996 and 2001 Census of Population and Dwellings have resulted in some data that is not consistent between 1991 and 1996 nor between 1996 and 2001. This applies particularly to the 'European' ethnic groups, including the 'New Zealand European' ethnic group, but also to the 'Māori' ethnic group. Data between 1991 and 2001 may not be affected.

To measure real effects of population change, comparison should be made between 1991 and 2001 census data.

Changes in the ethnicity question

The ethnicity question in the 1996 Census had a different format from that used in 1991 and 2001. In 1996, there was an answer box for 'Other European' with additional drop down answer boxes for 'English', 'Dutch', 'Australian', 'Scottish', 'Irish', 'other'. These were not used in 1991 and 2001.

Further, the first two answer boxes for the question were in a different order from those of 1991 and 2001. 'NZ Māori'was listed first and 'N Z European or Pakeha' was listed second in 1996. The 1991 and 2001 questions also only used the words 'New Zealand European' rather then 'NZ European or Pākehā'. The 2001 question used the word 'Māori' rather than 'NZ Māori'.

In all three years, people could provide more than one response to the question - for example Māori and Samoan. The wording of the 1996 question made it more explicit that respondents could tick more than one box for the ethnicity question.

Copies of the layout of the questions are contained in the more detailed technical paper referred to later in this note.

Impact on data

Some data from the 1996 ethnicity question is not consistent with data from 1991 and 2001. This is due in part to the effect of the different question format rather than an effect of real change.

  1. There have been increased counts for the additional "Other European" categories from 1996 . The increase was restricted to the 1996 data, with 1991 and 2001 being at much lower levels.
  2. There was also a drop in 1996 in the level for some categories such as 'European not further defined'. This again is a result of people in 1996 ticking the additionally specific 'other European" categories but in 1991 or 2001 just writing "British" or "European".
  3. The count for the 'NZ European or Pākehā' category decreased in 1996 compared with that of 1991 and 2001. This may have been because some people in 1996 saw the additional 'other European' categories as better describing their ethnicity and so answered these rather than the 'NZ European or Pākehā' category. There may also be some impact on 1996 data from this category being second on the list rather than first.
  4. The count of 'Māori' ethnicity increased between 1991 and 1996 but there has been little change between 1996 and 2001. There may be some effect from the category being listed first in 1996 but second in the other years. Furthermore, additional categories may have increased multiple response, and there may be some effect from people answering on the basis of ancestry.
  5. There were more people who answered several categories in 1996 in comparison with 1991 and 2001. This has affected data comparisons for those who want to analyse single ethnicity response categories, including the sole Māori ethnic group.

Cautions for users

As a result of these question and data changes, it is recommended that users note:

  1. Data for the European ethnic groups in the 1996 Census is not consistent with that of 1991 nor 2001. This includes data for the 'New Zealand European' subgroup, as well as other European subgroups such as 'Irish', 'Welsh', 'Dutch', and 'Italian'.
  2. Data for the 'Māori' ethnic group in the 1996 Census may not be consistent with that of 1991 or 2001.
  3. Data for the 'Asian' ethnic groups for the 1996 Census is less affected by the question changes.
  4. Data for the 'Pacific peoples' ethnic groups for the 1996 Census is less affected by the question changes.
  5. Data for single and combination ethnic groups for the 1996 Census is not consistent with that of 1991 or 2001.
  6. Data for prioritised ethnic groups for the 1996 Census is not consistent with that of 1991 or 2001.

Statistics New Zealand will not revise the 1996 census data to impose consistency with the 1991 or 2001 ethnic data.


Population estimates

Population estimates for the period back to 1991 will be reviewed in light of the data from the 2001 census. Part of this review will include the estimates of the Māori ethnic population and the different results provided by the three census counts. National population estimates and Māori Population Estimates Tables are available.


Further information

technical paper with further details and analysis of the data is available. For further information contact Dallas Welch or John Cornish by phone at 04 931 4600.

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