'Black like Beckham"? Moving beyond definitions of ethnicity based on skin colour and ancestry

S Karlsen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Objectives. The definitions of ethnic status currently employed in, particularly, epidemiological research, tend to focus on skin colour or on perceived historical or ancestral links with certain geographical locations. Neither of these classificatory systems stem from any widely supported theoretical standpoint and their usefulness in terms of explaining any ethnic variation is therefore questionable. In order to enable more informative exploration of ethnicity and its relationship with health and other indicators, a clearer understanding of the processes involved in ethnic identification is required. This paper sets out to explore underlying dimensions which could constitute an ethnic identity across different ethnic groups in England.

Design. Principal components factor analyses on the different ethnic groups included in the Ethnic Minority Psychiatric Illness Rates in the Community study: Bangladeshi, Caribbean, Indian, Irish and Pakistani people and a 'white majority' group. Results. In each ethnically specific model, three dimensions of ethnic identity were determined, related to multiculturalism, or the sustenance of ethnic difference, racialisation and community participation. In the ethnic minority group models the 'multiculturalism' dimension formed two factors: one related to the presentation of oneself as a member of a particular ethnic group and one exploring attitudes towards cultural assimilation. The findings suggested that the processes of ethnic identification are similar across the different ethnic (minority and majority) groups explored, but that there may be important differences within any particular group.

Conclusion. The recognition of these dimensions of ethnic affiliation provide us with an opportunity to improve our indicators of ethnic status. Each of these dimensions would appear to be important to the lives of people from different ethnic groups in England. These findings also highlight the important role that external attitudes play in the understanding of what it means to be a member of any ethnic group. This aspect of ethnic affiliation has been ignored by current definitions of ethnicity and this imbalance should be redressed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)107-137
Number of pages31
JournalEthnicity and Health
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2004


  • identity
  • racism
  • agency
  • structure
  • representation
  • reaction
  • RACE

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