Intermarriage by birthplace and ancestry in Australia.

Author:Khoo, Siew-Ean

Sociologists have long regarded intermarriage as a key indicator of ethnic integration. The authors analyse marriage data from the 2006 Australian census. They find that many ethnic groups show low levels of intermarriage in the first generation but that, by the third generation, rates of intermarriage are high. However most groups of migrants from South and East Asia and from the Middle East and Africa have not been in Australia long enough for us to know whether the relationship between length of time in Australia and integration will hold for them as it has for the earlier cohorts of European migrants.


Much interest in the subject of inter-ethnic marriage in Australia stems from the scale of Australia's migration program and concurrent concerns about the extent to which migrants are integrated into Australian society. Overseas studies of intermarriage between immigrants and native-born residents have considered it an important indicator of immigrant integration into the host society. (1) Australian scholars have taken a similar stance. (2) Price (3) has written that 'intermarriage is still the best measure of ethnic intermixture because it breaks down ethnic exclusiveness and mixes the various ethnic populations more effectively than any other social process'. Intermarriage between persons of different ethnic background also affects the social and cultural identities of the next generation, who will be of mixed or multi-ethnic heritage.

The sociological literature suggests that intermarriage by migrants and their descendants will be relatively high where the members of a community achieve upward social mobility. As migrants and their descendants progress through the education system and enter the labour force, the possibility increases of meeting prospective partners outside the community. Participation in schools, universities and the workplace all potentially serve to open up new social relationships and different ways of living which serve to liberate young people from the influence of parents and the ethnic community. The more this occurs, the more those making partnering choices are likely to be influenced by emotional ties developed with prospective partners rather than the preferences of their parents, who may be prescriptive about the ethnic background and economic prospects of the partners of their children.

On the other hand, some migrants belong to communities that place a high value on the maintenance of their values and cultural practices, contributing to strong social cohesion within the group. This may be accomplished by the creation of educational and cultural institutions that limit social encounters outside the community, or even by the proscription of out-marriage. Ethnic endogamy can be seen as an indicator of the strength of group cohesion and ethnic intermarriage as an indicator of its weakening. An additional factor that may contribute to this process in contemporary societies is the extent of electronic communication linkages to the homeland and the relative cheapness of international travel. These developments contribute to the maintenance of the ethnic community's cultural traditions as well as to the ease with which members of the community can return to their homeland to find a spouse.

Intermarriage across ethnic groups may also be related to the social distance between ethnic groups. (4) Persons from ethnic groups that are more similar with regard to social and demographic characteristics, such as educational attainment, residential location and language, for example, are more likely to intermarry because they encounter fewer barriers to social interaction. This hypothesis was supported by an early study of intermarriage among immigrants and the second generation of European ancestries in Australia which shows that persons from ancestry groups that are similar to one another on these social and demographic characteristics are more likely to intermarry. (5)

Using data from the 2006 Australian population census, this paper examines the extent of intermarriage by birthplace and ancestry in Australian society. It compares the intermarriage rate by gender and across successive generations by their ancestry to provide an indication of the extent of intermixing across ethnic groups among second and third generation Australians. It also compares the intermarriage rate by level of education to examine the question of whether education leads to a greater propensity to partner outside the ethnic group, as suggested by the sociological literature discussed above. The paper is part of a larger study of intermarriage in Australia based on the 2006 census data that also examines intermarriage by indigenous status and religion. (6)


The census asked each person to state his or her birthplace and ancestry. A census guide handed out with the census form suggests that people consider the origins of their parents and grandparents in answering the ancestry question. Individuals can provide a maximum of two main ancestries 'with which they most closely identify, if possible'. (7) Seventy-two per cent of the population stated one ancestry and 28 per cent indicated two ancestries in the census.

In this paper, intermarriage is examined by comparing the country of birth or ancestry of the male and female partners in couple families. Couple families include those who are married as well as those who are in de facto relationships. The analysis is based on only those men and women who state a single ancestry, since the aim is to examine the extent of exogamy among people from each ethnic group. The analysis is also based on couples where both spouses are present in the household on census night, since birthplace and ancestry data are not collected for persons temporarily absent from the household.

For men and women of each specific country of birth or ancestry, the intermarriage rate is calculated as the percentage that is intermarried, which is equal to the number of partnered men (or women) born in country x (or of ancestry y) whose partner is not born in country x (or is not of ancestry y) divided by the total number of partnered men (or women) born in country birth x (or of ancestry y) multiplied by 100.

In this paper, the first generation refers to people who are born overseas and have migrated to Australia. The second generation refers to people who are born in Australia who have one or both parents who are born overseas. The third or more generation refers to people who are born in Australia and whose parents are also born in Australia. It is not possible to separate the third generation from higher order generations.


The intermarriage rates between Australia-born and overseas-born people are shown by the country of birth of the overseas-born partner in Table 1. The census did not collect information on the timing or place of marriage or the start of a de facto relationship. Therefore, it is not possible to determine if people who are part of a couple where one or both spouses are born overseas have married overseas or in Australia after the arrival of the overseas-born partner(s). Birthplace groups with a low rate of intermarriage with Australia-born persons may be a reflection of the migration of family units (where both spouses would have been born overseas) or a low propensity for exogamy or both.

Table 1: Per cent of overseas-born men and women in couple families with an Australia-born...

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