Over the course of the 20th century, the concept of race in the United States changed from a fixed biological attribute to a social identity based on ancestry and community recognition. This conceptual shift has spurred increasingly complex methods of measuring, processing, and analyzing racial data. Modern census and survey respondents are asked to report subjective identities in response to multiple race/ethnicity questions with a large number of categories and response options, including the option to mark more than one. Hispanics, new immigrants, and persons of mixed ancestry often provide ambiguous responses to such queries, with high levels of nonresponse, write-in responses, and multiracial responses.

Data collection agencies and researchers are faced with difficult choices about how to classify respondents with multiple origins and how to interpret missing or ambiguous identities. To help resolve these challenges, we propose a new measure, “primary race/ethnicity,” as a follow-up to census-style questions on race and Hispanic origin. Results from the analysis of nearly 10,000 high school seniors show an 83% reduction in problematic race responses when primary identity is taken into account.


Charles Hirschman is Boeing International Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. He received his BA from Miami University in 1965 and his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1972. He also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural village in Malaysia from 1965 to 1967.

Prior to his appointment at the University of Washington in 1987, Dr. Hirschman taught at Duke and Cornell. Dr. Hirschman has published widely on demographic and social change in Southeast Asia, race and ethnicity, and immigration to the United States. He currently directs the University of Washington-Beyond High School project, a longitudinal study of educational attainment and the early life course of young adults. He is past President of the Population Association of America (2005) and former chair of Section K (Social, Economic, and Political Sciences) of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (2004-2005).