Breaking down the “British Asian” category

Wedding dresses in East London. Photo by Fin Fahey (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Do people of South Asian descent in the UK identify with the label “British Asian”?

Is “British Asian” a good analytical category for researchers and policy makers interested in the diverse South Asian groups in Britain?

Some in-progress research at the London School of Economics suggests that the answer to both may be no.

Sociologist Indraneel Sircar and economist Jyoti Saraswati have done a small pilot study of social cohesion, social mobility, and integration among British-born Hindu Bengalis from working-class backgrounds in London. They wrote about their research today on LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

Sircar and Saraswati find that their small sample of respondents largely rejects the “Asian” label (which, in the UK, is used to refer specifically to people of South Asian descent):

…the term has little purchase amongst ‘Asians’ themselves: in the aforementioned self-identification question in our survey, a majority indicated ‘Asian’ as the least favoured option. Respondents avoided the term ‘Asian’ since it had negative connotations in the media (e.g. ‘Asian youth gangs’) and did not reflect their nuanced ethno-linguistic and religious identities vis-à-vis other British-born individuals of South Asian heritage in London.

Contrary to the dominant narrative about working-class British Asians, the group they are studying is socially unintegrated but upwardly mobile. How can researchers make sense of this difference? Is “British Asian” a good category to use, when there is so much difference between different British Asian groups? Sircar and Saraswati argue that the umbrella category is too broad to be useful, at least in this type of research:

By avoiding the catch-all term ‘(British) Asian’, we can move on from a blinkered ethnicity-focussed approach, and instead look at socio-economics and other commonalities to address policy challenges related to integration, cohesion and mobility that can potentially benefit all communities in London.

Their argument here is similar to calls from scholars of Asian Americans to be careful when talking about “Asian Americans” as a whole. Like British Asians, Asian Americans are extremely diverse in terms of class, history, language, and culture. This problem of lumping Asian Americans together came into the public spotlight a few months ago with the controversy over the Pew Research Center’s report on Asian Americans.