Starting with the 2001 Census, the ABS added a new topic to the already extensive list of Census questions relating to cultural diversity. The question was about Ancestry. At .id we have just added this topic to sites for all our local government users, with 3 Census years available. This post looks at the main findings of the ancestry question and what it can do.

The question

“What is the person’s ancestry?” – the question couldn’t be more simple. Yet this is one of the most difficult Census questions for much of Australia’s population to answer. If you’re like many people you could name plenty of different countries where your ancestors came from. Personally I can think of about 6, but the question clearly states to provide two only. If you go back far enough, the current scientific consensus is that we are all East Africans, but the question probably would be best answered by not going back that far.

Image of question 18 from the 2011 Census

In fact, it’s not on the form, but the Census help guidelines suggested looking back only 2 generations, to where your parents or grandparents were born, or what ethnic group they belong to. Previously in 2006 and 2001, 3 generations were suggested.

In fact, the form testing seems to show that people don’t necessarily respond by only looking back those two generations, but do what the question is really designed to do, capture particular cultural histories within Australia. The main purpose of ancestry is to identify the size of cultural groups within Australia, regardless of birthplace or language considerations.

The results

This chart shows the top 20 ancestries in Australia in 2011.

Though you might think that Australian ancestry would top the list, in fact the largest single ancestry response is “English”, with over 7 million responses, or 33.7% of the population, which is not really surprising considering that most of the population can trace their ancestors back to the UK at some point. But it also has to do with the location of English at the top of the boxes on the form. Australian is second, though it is at the bottom of the list, and disadvantaged by the fact that if someone marked 3 ancestries on the list (eg. English, Italian and Australian) the third one isn’t counted (it’s a bit like voting isn’t it..).

Irish and Scottish ancestries are also enormous, with over 2 million responses (though only 67,000 people were born in Ireland). Many people seem to be able to trace an ancestor back to Ireland, though it’s likely a lot of these are going back more than 2 or 3 generations, given that the Irish disaspora peaked in the mid-1800s.

Chinese (866,000) and Indian (390,000) ancestries are both in the top 10 and are among the biggest increases this Census, in line with the increasing number of migrants from these countries. It’s worth remembering though that when looking at ancestry, a number of smaller cultural groups in those countries also feature (eg. Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil).

Cultural groups which ancestry can pick up but are usually missed by birthplace and language (one of the major reasons for including the question in the first place) include Maori (128,000 – almost as many as stated “New Zealander” – 187,025), Tamil (19,000) and Kurdish (7,000).

Ancestry can also be a little misleading. Only 25,000 people stated “Jewish” as their ancestry, but nearly 4 times as many stated Judaism as their religion – which is unlikely unless there are a lot of converts to the religion. Most likely the difference is simply people putting their country of origin as their ancestry.

Also the response “Australian Aboriginal”, while high in some areas with indigenous populations, only contains 127,600 people, compared to 517,000 who answered “Aboriginal” to the specific question about indigenous origin. This is probably because most Aboriginal people would mark the “Australian” box rather than writing in their Aboriginal ancestry which they’ve already stated in another question.

Overall, however, Ancestry can give a good overview of the cultural makeup of the population. Just don’t assume that it as reliable in giving you the exact numbers of certain groups as more well defined topics like birthplace and language.

The difficulty of presentation of ancestry data

Ancestry is a multi-response variable, and the difficulties with this are the reason why .id held off putting it on the profile for some time.

If you look carefully at the percentages on the Ancestry page of, you’ll notice that they add up to 100%. That’s because we calculate them as a percentage of population, but people can nominate more than one ancestry (but they can nominate just one if they want to). Nationally there were 21.5 million people, but 27.9 million responses to the ancestry question, so around 6.4 million people provided 2 responses and are double counted in the table. We have calculated the ancestries as a percentage of population rather than responses, on the assumption that what our users will want to know is the percentage of their population who has a particular ancestry, not the percentage of the (highly variable) number of responses. But the latter can be easily calculated if you want to use it.

We state clearly in the summary table below what the total number of persons and total number of responses are, so you can make your own call on this one. It’s quite different to other topics so take care!

‘Not Stated’ is also in there – for those who didn’t state even one ancestry – but it counts as one response in the total.

We’ve also had to present a slightly abbreviated list of the 320 ancestries recognised by the ABS. Due to the very small size of some groups, we’ve aggregated them together into categories like “Other Indian Subcontinent”, and “Other Arab peoples”. Details of which countries are included in these categories are shown in the data notes linked from the bottom of the table (eg. here).

Some interesting ancestry profiles

In most areas of Australia, English, Australian, Irish and Scottish ancestries dominate, with some Italian, Greek, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian thrown in to many areas. Here are a few interesting ones we’ve picked out with other ancestries being dominant.

In Fairfield City Council, Vietnamese and Chinese ancestries top the list, and it contains about half of the Australians of Assyrian ancestry, an ancient civilizations which pre-dates the Romans and Greeks.

In Victoria-Daly Shire in the Northern Territory, Australian Aboriginal ancestries make up 75% of the population, and in this area almost equal the number of people of ATSI descent.

26% of Hurstville‘s population have Chinese ancestry.

In the City of Yarra, an area renowned for its cultural diversity, the biggest increases were among those with English, Irish and Scottish ancestry, as the population gentrifies.

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Glenn is a Census data expert, having worked at the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 10 years and at .id fo...

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