(This is a short piece I wrote for the University of Birmingham’s ‘Birmingham Brief’ series of briefings. It should have gone out last week, but because of the Christmas angle, the University decided to hold it back till this week. If you want to download the ‘official’ University version, you can do so by clicking here)
According to the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that a census should be undertaken across the entire Roman Empire. It was against this backdrop that Mary and Joseph made the journey to Bethlehem: most will know what happened next.
The census at the time of Caesar Augustus would have been quite different to those that take place today. Instead of trying to keep track of adult males fit for military service, today’s census provide politicians, policymakers and academics – as well as many others – with information and data about the many and varied attributes of the population.
In contemporary Britain, we have a census every ten years. Data from the most recent – the Census 2011 – was released earlier this week and what it presents is clear evidence that the ethnic and religious make-up of Britain in the twenty-first century is changing. But whilst Britain is changing, are we clear about how and what impact it will have?
Unlike in the last half century or so, the change we are seeing today is far more multi-layered and complex, something that in itself makes it harder for us to understand. For example, the data shows that the percentage of people in England and Wales identifying as ‘White British’ is in decline: from 87.0% in 2001 to 80.5% in 2011. But this may present a somewhat skewed picture when considered in isolation or alongside some of the more sensationalist headlines that have been used by some of the national tabloids. Take London out of the frame and the picture looks much different and less changing.
One finding that has been relatively overlooked has been the significant growth in the numbers of people describing themselves as being of ‘mixed’ or ‘multiple’ heritages. Having grown to 1.2 million – up 600,000 since 2001 – many identify a part of their heritage as being ‘White British’. Given that 12% of households now have partners or household members of different ethnic groups, to what extent is this evidence that ‘integration’ across different ethnicities is now taking place at the most personal and individual of levels?
Given that many people will be thinking about the Christmas story at this time of year, it is interesting that the data shows that the number of people declaring themselves as having ‘No religion’ has jumped from 14.6% in 2001 to 25.1% in 2011. Maybe consequently, the data also shows that the number of people identifying themselves as Christians has fallen from 71.7% of the population to 59.3% since the religion question was first introduced in 2001. Maybe fewer will be reflecting on the Christmas story after all.
Such figures though should be handled with care. Far from meaning that either Christianity or religion is in decline, the numbers more likely suggest a shift away from affiliating to larger institutional forms of Christianity. People today are more likely to adopt a “pick‘n’mix” approach to their worldview combining aspects of Christianity with those from other religions and belief systems such as reincarnation for instance. Nonetheless, the religious identity of the country is changing and as the data showed, not only did all minority religious groups grow but so too did the number of different religions featuring under “Other religion” also increase.
At the best of times, change can be difficult for us to understand; when it becomes more complex, so too does it become more difficult and more problematic. Consequently, change has the very real potential to heighten tensions and cause division between different people and groups. This complexity has been described as ‘superdiversity’. To understand this better, it is necessary that we change our thinking also, to reconfigure how we not only understand our complexity but so too how we collectively face the challenges that will no doubt ensue. Here at the University of Birmingham the new Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) will be looking to be at the forefront of thinking in this respect.
Whilst Christmas will come and go for another year, further Census 2011 data is scheduled for release in early 2013 at which time we will begin to learn even more about the many and varied attributes of today’s British population.