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Can we really measure racial prejudice?

Posted on 27 May 2014
Tags: Alison Park, Britain, British Social Attitudes, ethnicity, race, racial prejudice, racism, attitudes, politics, quantitative data, religion, social and political attitudes, social surveys, survey

Alison ParkThis piece was originally published on The Guardian's Comment is Free alongside a news article.

Today the Guardian reports new data from the British Social Attitudes survey showing that three in ten people describe themselves as being very or a little racially prejudiced. As the co-director of this survey, I’d like to use this space to explain how we arrived at these numbers, and outline the sorts of issues we consider when interpreting attitudinal data.

The question records self-reported levels of racism. We ask it during a face-to-face interview, following a ‘warm up’ question about whether the person thinks levels of racial prejudice have increased or not over the last five years. The precise question wording is “How would you describe yourself … as very prejudiced against people of other races, a little prejudiced, or not prejudiced at all?”. In 2013, 3% described themselves as “very prejudiced”, 27% said they were “a little prejudiced”, and 68% said they were “not prejudiced at all” (a further 2% said they did not know). To get to the findings that have made headlines today, we grouped those who describe themselves as “a little” and “very” prejudiced into a single category (“some prejudice”).

Looking at the results over time may surprise people. The proportion with some prejudice in 2013 (30%) is lower than the proportion who gave this answer in 1983 (36%), but this disguises some considerable change over the years. In particular, it’s notable that prejudice fell a great deal during the 1990s (reaching a low of 25% in 2000 and 2001) – but then shot up between 2001 and 2002 (from 25% in 2001 to 31% in 2002). The highest level recorded was in 2010, when 37% described themselves as prejudiced.

You may well be wondering how we carry about the survey and select our sample. Each year, addresses are randomly selected from the Post Office’s Postcode Address File. We write to the inhabitants, and then it is up to our interviewers to knock on their doors and convince people to take part. We usually interview around 3,300 people each year. Once the survey is over we compare the profile of the people we have spoken to with the true demographic make-up of Britain (as recorded by the Census) to make sure that are results are properly representative.

You may also be wondering who would admit to racial prejudice, particularly in a face-to-face interview with a stranger? It’s a good point, and one which troubles survey methodologists who see it as an example of what is called “social desirability bias”. There is no simple way around this – but one way in which we can check the validity of the answers we get is to see how they tally with responses to other relevant questions. This shows that there is a strong connection – so someone who describes themselves as racially prejudiced is more likely than someone else to think that immigration undermines Britain’s cultural life, or say they would mind if one of their relatives married someone of (for example) Asian origin.

It’s important to recognise that these findings are not indicative of anything other than how many people describe themselves as racially prejudiced in an interview situation. They are not indicative of an increase in racially motivated crime, workplace discrimination or a nation catapulting to the far right. It is, nonetheless, significant and shows that the fight against racism is no fait accompli. So who have campaigners left to convince?

The answer from our 2013 survey is that the highest levels of prejudice are found among older generations, the less well educated and those in less skilled occupations. Just over a third (36%) of the over-55 described themselves as prejudiced, compared with a quarter (25%) of 18-34 year olds. And while one in five (19%) of graduates say they are prejudiced, this is true of 38% of people with no qualifications.

Racial prejudice, in whatever guise, is undoubtedly still part of the national psyche. What attitudinal surveys like British Social Attitudes measure is subjective and personal, and words like ‘race’ and ‘prejudice’ are particularly culturally charged. So can we ever really know whether someone is racist from how they answer a survey question? No. But should we take someone’s word for it if they say that they harbour some racial prejudice? Of course.

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