Like many other countries, Norway is known as a “registry country”. This means that they base their population statistics on the national population registry and information about country of birth, not on which ethnicity the residents define themselves as. (Illustration: iStockphoto)

Ethnicity cannot be counted

Counting the number of women and men is considered to be rather unproblematic. But how do you measure diversity?
December 19, 2017


While ethnicity is subjective, country of birth can be registered more easily, according to Minja Tea Dzamarija, a senior adviser at Statistics Norway. (Photo: SSB)

You are standing in the middle of campus and look around. The people swarming around you are white. Mostly, in any case. Only occasionally do you see someone who you think has ancestors from another part of the world.

How many of them are there?

It quickly becomes apparent that it is impossible to know, because how do you count ethnicity?

“Ethnicity is subjective”

“There are very many people, especially in the media, who want to quantify ethnicity. But that’s not something we do here at Statistics Norway.”

This is according to Minja Tea Dzamarija, a senior adviser in the Division for Population Statistics at Statistics Norway.

“We only register country of birth, since this is something that doesn’t change. Our variables are not dynamic,” she continues.

It could be argued, though, that factors such as skin colour do not change either. But it is not so easy.

“Ethnicity is subjective. We see this from countries that conduct censuses, where it’s not unusual for a person to change ethnic groups from one census to the next.”

“I have a similar experience from my own family. I was born in the former Yugoslavia and came to Norway in the 1990s. We were a very heterogeneous nation, and I have cousins who are registered with different ethnicities, even though they have the same parents. They have a father who defines himself as Slovenian and a mother who defines herself as Croatian, and my cousins have defined themselves differently through the years.”


“We must find out if there is discrimination in academia,” says sier Warsame Ali, a psychologist at NAKMI. (Photo: NAKMI)

“Need a common understanding”

Warsame Ali has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Migration and Minority Health (NAKMI).

“If we’re going to use a term like ‘ethnic diversity’, we must at least be sure that we all define it in the same way so that we have a common understanding of what we’re actually talking about. In academia it’s easy to get caught up in discussions of what words and terms mean.”

“But are skin colour, name and native language, for example, things we should be talking more about?”

“I don’t have evidence to state that having a different ethnic background is a major problem for the academic career path. But there is clearly a lack of diversity in academia, so it’s important to try to gain knowledge about what aspects of the system can have a discriminatory effect,” says Ali.

Norway is a registry country

A while ago, the Ministry of Education and Research and the KIF Committee commissioned the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) to survey the situation of ethnic diversity in academia.

“But we found out rather quickly that the project would be challenging, because how do you define ethnicity?” asks Hebe Gunnes, a senior adviser at NIFU.

The previous day she had taken part in the KIF Committee’s conference on gender and diversity in academia, where a presenter from the US talked about measures they had launched.

“The speaker used categories such as ‘black’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Asian’ and ‘white’. Those categories have no meaning for us here in Norway,” says Gunnes.

This is because Norway, and most other countries, are known as “registry countries”, meaning that they base their population statistics on the national population registry and the information found there about country of birth.

“And then you have the so-called ‘overseas immigrant countries’ – the US, Canada and Australia – that base their population statistics on regular censuses in which people are asked to place an x next to their ethnicity. But it turns out that what they cross off can change throughout their lifetime,” explains Dzamarija.

Statistics Norway registers both a person’s country of birth and the parents’ and grandparents’ country of birth.

“In most of our analyses, we operate with one standard: immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrant parents are combined in the category ‘persons with an immigrant background’.  We refer to all others as ‘the rest of the population’. ‘Ethnic Norwegian’ is not a term we use,” Dzamarija emphasises.

“Must not be too detail oriented”

In the NIFU report, the concept of diversity was therefore based on geographic origin, in keeping with Statistics Norway’s population statistics. The report, entitled “Diversity statistics: Statistics on immigrants and descendants of immigrants in Norwegian research and higher education” (in Norwegian only), distinguishes between international mobile researchers, and immigrants and their descendants who have received a higher education in Norway.

“For these groups, the part of the world they come from may be significant. As such, it could be interesting to look at potential differences with regard to recruitment and the academic career path between those with a background from Western countries and those with a background from Asia or Africa,” says Gunnes.


The diversity statistics look at two different groups, according to Hebe Gunnes, a senior adviser at NIFU. (Photo: Ragnhild Fjellro)

For example, you might think it must be different for a white versus a black South African to come to a mostly white, Norwegian academic environment.

However, Warsame Ali does not think it is necessary to get into such detail.

“I think that it’s fine initially to use country of birth as a basis for a discussion about diversity. Then in the next phase we can go in and fine-tune, and take into account different ethnicities from the same region. For instance, there are many Somalis who were born in Kenya or Uganda, but nonetheless define themselves as Somali. But this level of detail can be addressed at a later stage.”

Read: Diversity statistics raise new questions

Employer’s duty

There is no precise definition of “ethnicity” given in either the current Ethnicity Anti-discrimination Act or in the one that will enter into force on 1 January 2018. However, the law specifies that national origin, descent, skin colour and language are considered grounds for discrimination.

By the same token, if you google “ethnic diversity”, you will get over 11 000 hits, many of them with references to public documents, textbooks on pedagogy and various media content.

But the Gender Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud (LDO) does not use this term, according to division director Claus Jervell.

“We can talk about ethnic equality and ethnic discrimination, but use of the term ‘ethnic diversity’ can be problematic in general. With regard to the academic institutions, they must define what they are talking about before they can implement measures to increase ethnic diversity.”

The Ethnicity Anti-discrimination Act stipulates that employers have a duty to make an active, systematic and targeted effort to combat ethnic discrimination. At the same time, the Personal Data Act sets strict limitations on the collection and storage of information about the ethnic background of employees and job applicants.

So what do we do if we want to work to increase “ethnic diversity”?

“As one example, we can ask those it concerns how they define themselves, such as through an anonymous employee survey. But privacy protection must be given consideration at all times,” Jervell emphasises.


“We don’t use the term ‘ethnic diversity’ at the LDO,” says division director Claus Jervell. (Photo Christine B. Vollan, LDO)

“The concerns should be clarified”

Jervell’s main advice to academic institutions is to sit down and ask themselves: What are we concerned about?

“Is the goal that more highly educated researchers from around the world will come to Norway and feel comfortable here in academia? Or is the research sector more concerned that so many ethnic minorities in Norway do not move ahead in academia?”

Warsame Ali would like to see more data on how people of various ethnicities feel about being a part of academia. But first he thinks the academic institutions can begin to look at the research fields that study migration, ethnicity and discrimination. As a start, the institutions can ensure that at least in those fields they have a diverse group of researchers with a variety of experiences, such as an immigrant background.

“Then we will have better perspectives on the research, and next time we can use that knowledge to gain a better understanding of other research fields,” says Ali.

Translated by Connie Stultz.