In the 18th and 19th centuries European thinkers assumed the world’s known diverse populations could be classified as ‘races’. Marked by perceived physical differences, races were believed to have unalterable social and psychological characteristics. These ideas supported hierarchical notions of European (white Caucasian) superiority over other races.
Twentieth-century advances in scientific knowledge, particularly about genetics, challenged racial explanations for human diversity. Most social and physical scientists now argue that ‘races’ are socially rather than biologically constructed. Ideas about race emerge in particular times and places. They reflect subjective beliefs about perceived differences rather than inherent distinctions.
Ethnicity is a word derived from the ancient Greek term ethnos, which typically meant a ‘people’ or ‘nation’. From the 1970s it increasingly replaced ‘race’ as a way of describing and classifying group differences.
Ethnicity refers to a sense of cultural affiliation and common descent. All peoples develop particular ways of living in their social environments. A consciousness of ethnicity often emerges when groups come into contact with others and cultural differences are perceived between them.
It is sometimes said that before the arrival of Lieutenant James Cook, there were no Māori in New Zealand. As the only inhabitants of the country, they referred to other iwi and hapū, but did not have a collective term for themselves. Once Europeans arrived the existing people needed to distinguish themselves from the new arrivals. Māori originally meant usual or normal. So they called themselves tangata māori (normal people), as distinct from tangata mā (white people), tangata pora (strange people) or Pākehā. European settlers originally called the indigenous people Indians, New Zealanders or natives. ‘Māori’ only emerged as a term used by Pākehā in the 1840s.
Eventually the distinctions of Māori and Pākehā became important for state policy, and official classifications were developed. Early New Zealand census statistics were based on a racial assessment of blood ties. In 1916 respondents were asked to state their race, and in 1936 they were encouraged to define their race by fractions of blood. All ethnicities apart from Māori and European were described as ‘race aliens’.
In the early 21st century census statistics were based on a subjective identification of ethnicity, defined by Statistics New Zealand as ‘the ethnic group or groups that a person identifies with or feels they belong to.’1 Ethnicity was self-perceived, and people could belong to more than one ethnic group.
An ethnic group is defined by Statistics New Zealand as having the following characteristics:
- a shared name
- common cultural elements such as language or religion
- a community of interests and feelings
- a shared sense of common ancestry or origins
- a common place of geographic origin.
Ethnocentrism and racism
In New Zealand, as in most societies, racial or ethnic labels are often applied to diverse sets of people in stereotypical fashion. These labels sometimes support ethnocentric judgements about the normality and superiority of ‘our’ way of doing things in contrast to ‘theirs’. Such beliefs can translate into discriminatory actions which influence inequalities between ethnic groups.
Who gets what, when and how are the questions to be explored when examining equality and inequality. The answers reveal the differences in people’s share of resources. Resources vary over time and place, and between cultures. Globally, distinctions between rich and poor countries are very visible. Some people lack sufficient food, water and shelter to sustain life.
These conditions are rare in affluent societies like New Zealand. Researchers are more concerned with describing relative poverty – relative disparities in resources like income or housing.
Measuring relative poverty
There is considerable debate about how best to assess the distribution of relative poverty. However, the key indicators of people’s capability to enjoy an ‘average lifestyle’ are:
- levels of income
- standards of living, including access to education, regular employment, adequate housing, good health and affordable social services
- rates of participation in society, especially effective political representation.
Some individuals and groups cannot afford more than the absolute necessities, and have a limited ability to engage in activities such as recreation or time with family.
There are other factors which affect equality and may cut across ethnicity. These include age, generation, gender, disabilities, socio-economic status, sexual preference and regional differences.