Thursday, 17 January 2013

Information and identity: UK census and being British

"'British whites' are the minority in London" shouted the headline in the Daily Mail when the results of the 2011 UK census were released last year.

UK readers will know that there are all sorts of issues with the Daily Mail (just have a look at Tabloid Watch) but this piece of data from the census, that 45% of Londoners described themselves as 'White British' in answer to the question about ethnicity, was widely reported in the press (see some comment in the Guardian).

What does it mean to be British?  And why is it significant whether you are 'white British' or British of some other colour?

When I start to think about this, I find I'm completely at sea. Lots of strands, going nowhere. The only thing that holds it together is that it is about information and identity.  We crave identity, we need to label things otherwise they might as well not exist - they don't exist unless we can label them because we can't think about something unless it has a label - so we choose the set of labels to use, and they create the identity.

OK, some of those random strands, maybe going nowhere.

The 2011 census page of the UK government Office for National Statistics is headlined "Who we are. How we live. What we do." "Who we are": so the categories in the census tells us who we are? 'Who we are' is constrained by the categories allowed in the census questions.

'British' is a construct by what or whom?

I'm currently reading 'Bring up the bodies', Hilary Mantel's second installment of her account of Thomas Cromwell.  In some sense it has an extra interest to me because it is about British history, it is about my history. I think so anyway.  Or maybe it is because the themes, all the stuff it reaches out to, the physical geography, the Church of England, are things I know about, so I get more of the richness of the story than I would have done if I was reading about a similar event in a 'foreign' setting. Or maybe the point is that is what it means to be British: to know these things. Ah, but no. come on, I can't say that someone who doesn't know them is not British. The again, I suppose that is what UK citizenship test is about. Hmm, have my thoughts really led to supporting the UK citizenship test?

As I said, going nowhere!  But we have the theme of Information and Identity in DTMD 2013: maybe some of the talks there will get us somewhere.


Syed Mustafa Ali said...

I think it's important to distinguish quantitative minority from qualitative minority.

The former has to do with the number of individuals belonging to a racial / ethnic category (itself problematic given the fact that categories are constructs embedded within socio-material power-relations - on this point see Bowker and Star's Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequence, and Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva's White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology).

The latter has to do with power-relational asymmetries: One can simultaneously belong to a quantitative minority while also belonging to a qualitative majority. (Consider, for example, colonial administrations such as the British Raj and, arguably, the position of people classified as 'white' relative to those classified as 'non-white' under contemporary (neo-)liberal globalization which, according to Charles W. Mills, masks a vertical 'contract' of white supremacy.

David Chapman said...

"One can simultaneously belong to a quantitative minority while also belonging to a qualitative majority." Yes, I'm sure that's right. Indeed, it's surely self-evidently the case in some contexts.