Possible Survey Categories

“Each survey requires sensitive handling when establishing definitions and the education category, in order to prevent any further stigmatization of the discriminated against group.”

- Quote from the protocol of the discussion of the Anti-Discrimination Agency in 2009.

Data collection which is aimed at the documentation of discrimination or the recognition of social problems requires the collection of sensitive data. Individuals and their affiliation(s) are not monolithic, but a combination of many facets. A person has not only a gender, an origin, an external appearance, a political opinion, a religion, a nationality, a native language, but also other facets that make up their identity. This illustrates that people are made up of a combination of diverse and sometimes complex traits, affiliations and backgrounds which shape their respective lives, as well as social dynamics in general. Surveys must adequately reflect these complexities.                                                

In a person’s various stages or areas of life these facets may become more or less dominant or relevant. Self-perception may be different from other people’s perception (external perception).

To represent this multifaceted character, unspecific and broad categories, such as migration background, should be avoided. Thereby, findings from research, and studies on experiences with discrimination would provide more detailed information. This would allow for the execution of targeted social interventions.

In its 2009 country report, the ECRI advised Germany to collect the data on its population composition according to religion, language, nationality, and national or ethnic origin.

Furthermore, it must be weighed on how many categories can be surveyed, as financial and time limitations usually play an important role. However, a determining factor should be the objective of the study. Any categories should be determined in line with the objective.

Therefore, a study on ‘racial profiling’ would predominantly contain categories on visible minorities. For data collection regarding success in schools, the category of e.g. native language would be more revelant.

In the following section, it will be discussed which possible categories should be considered in the course of specific data collection.


a) General Personal Data


Citizenship often plays a central role as a survey category. Respondents are questioned on their nationality, indicating whether they possess a German passport, whether they have ‘EU citizenship’, or whether they are ‘third country nationals’. However, it is equally important to survey whether a person has changed their nationality. This could mean that they have changed their citizenship, or that they have a dual-citizenship.

Residential Status

For people without a German passport the immigration status may have a profound impact on their possibilities and quality of life. People with a temporary or permanent residence permit have different rights and obligations than those with a tolerance permit, or those in an asylum procedure. This can affect the possibility of employment, the right of establishment, and the right to travel. The residential status category is an integral part of surveys regarding demographic compositions. However, this category is usually not considered in the context of statistical surveys on the detection of discrimination. Surveying this category would offer insights on the potential exclusion of segments of the population.


At first glance the category ‘gender’ seems neither sensitive, nor controversial, as it is surveyed almost always, and practically everywhere. Even though a certain level of awareness was achieved with respect to trans- and intersexuality in Germany, the categories ‘3rd gender’, ‘intersexual’, ‘trans’, or ‘other gender’ have not yet been included in the relevant questionnaires. This means that the problems of an entire population group are being ignored.

Migrant Background

It has become common practice to survey a person’s ‘migrant background’. However, this means that only a limited variety of circumstances can be included. Beyond the prevailing definition, it should also be considered to include inquiries on individual migration experience (1st generation), parents’ migration experience (2nd generation), and grandparents’ migration experience (3rd generation). In certain surveys, the respective unilateral or bilateral migration experience of parents or grandparents could provide valuable insights.

(Family) Language

The collection of data on ‘family language’ can provide information on whether children are educated in their first, or second (or third/fourth/etc) language at school, as well as how this affects their performance.


b) Sensitive personal data

Ethnic Origin

In Germany, regional and cultural groups such as Swabians, Franks, Pomeranians, Saxonians, Friesians, or Rhinelanders are not defined as an “ethnic category”. In numerous countries in Asia and Africa the affiliation to a certain cultural and linguistic group is an integral part of everyday life. In cases where colonialism has not poisoned the groups’ relationships, it is still possible for the groups to exchange and coexistance without tension. People from Africa or Asia are identified as belonging to a certain ethnic origin while, Germans are not. This phenomenon causes unidentified imbalance.

Affiliation to an ethnic group is not represented in a person’s nationality. Often, countries may host more than one ethnic group. Therefore, the category ‘ethnic origin’ adds informational value. As a result, Kurds can have a passport from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, or Syria. South African citizens can be Zulu, Xhosa, Ndbele, Khoisan, or, Afrikaans.

It must also be considered however, that asking for ethnic origin may have its shortcomings. An example of this would be if the aforementioned ethnic origin were to be used as grounds for discrimination, as provided for in the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG). In such situations, other aspects such as language (Schwäbisch, Basque, Ibgo), appearance, cultural clothing, styles, hairstyles, etc. may not be adequately addressed. Therfore, where appropriate these should be surveyed separately.


As previously noted, language is often closely connected to the category of ‘ethnic origin’.

‘People of Color’/ Skin Color / Appearance

Whether a person is white, black or identifies as a person of colour, skin colour is a factor which is directly noticeable. It has been known to often trigger racist behaviour. Therefore, this category may be of particular relevance for the collection of data relating to experience with racial discrimination. In this capacity, rather than the actual skin tone being the problem, it appears that it is the perception of an individuals belonging to a particular ethnic group that can cause issues.

Other Changeable Features

While cultural and/or religious features such as clothing, hairstyles, headgear, etc. may be chosen freely, and can be changed, they may also constitute essential attributes of a cultural/ethnic/religious group. In cases where such features are clearly visible (e.g. side locks, turbans, headscarves), they often invoke a feeling of “otherness” in people, similarly to skin colour. Therefore, in surveys on discrimination experience, the category ‘other changeable characteristics’ would be relevant.

Religious Affiliation

In official questionnaires in Germany, religious denomination (Catholic, Protestant, no religious belief) are quieried. In 2011, the micro census interrogated people on their religious community membership (for instance Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish), as well as on their religious confessions, such as Islam, Hinduism or Christianity. Moreover, information provided in the category ‘active or passive religion’ could offer important information on how to organise schools, public holidays, and public work spaces according to specific needs.

The categories presented here give each for themselves only one small insight into the complicated identities and dynamicswith regard to integration, exclusion, discrimination experience, and educational success. These must be considered and analyzed in an overall view so that it is possible to recognize differentiated problems, and be able tackle them accordingly.  The survey divided into small categorical pieces as suggested here allows, in the context of investigations concerning discrimination, for recognition of complicated characteristic values. It would for example, be more recognizable that Muslim women who wear a headscarf are more likely to be discriminated against than Muslim women who do not wear a headscarf. Equally, it would provide the evidence to prove that young men with dark skin are muchmore frequently controlled by the police than young men with light skin.

In addition to the suggested features, the option ‘other’ should also always be available within each category in an attempt to include ‘forgotten’ features.

© Büro zur Umsetzung von Gleichbehandlung e.V. 2018