Harmonizing Ethnic Minority Status in International Survey Projects

by Olena Oleksiyenko, Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences

This article focuses on issues of harmonizing information on ethnic minority status as part of a larger project on patterns of electoral and non-electoral political participation in post-soviet states. Specifically, I am interested in differences in political participation between a given country’s Russian-speaking minority and the majority population in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

There is no single international survey project that adequately covers all the former Soviet republics since the Soviet Union’s collapse, to current times. Even projects with the broadest country coverage, such as Life in Transition, do not allow for meaningful over-time comparisons. Hence, I selected, for purpose of ex-post harmonization, international projects that measure peoples’ electoral and non-electoral participation and ethnic identification in any of the post-soviet countries. Table 1 presents the list of the international survey projects I included, which taken together, span the period 1993- 2015.

Table 1. International Survey Projects with Relevant Data


Cross-national comparisons of ethnic groups are not as straightforward as it may seem, since in many cases the underlying concept of “minority group” is different in each state. The literature proposes different approaches to increase comparability of the concept. The “absolutist” approach suggests that only one marker of minority status should be taken into account, e.g. citizenship or language. The advantage of such a solution is conceptual clarity, but one can argue that the complexity of the minority status cannot be precisely studied with only one indicator. An alternative is the “relativist” approach to harmonization of items on minority status. This involves cross-classification of different ethnic referents to obtain a single, cross-nationally equivalent score on “ethnic minority status” (Lambert 2005). The problem with the “relativist” approach is the low availability of the same markers across all surveys.

In using survey data to identify Russian minority, there is no clear and simple solution. The literature suggests that, in the former Soviet republics, the Russian-speaking minority consists of not ethnic Russians per se, but specifically people who speak the Russian language and who also have a social identity that is opposed to full integration (Hagendoorn et al 2001). The logic is as follows: During the Soviet period, ethnic Russians were the most mobile group among all nationalities and they settled in the different Soviet republics, in a move that some perceived as an “empire expansion to the peripheries” (Tishkov et al. 2005). After the Soviet Union fell, the identity of the Russian-speakers living in the former Soviet states seems context-dependent: Russians often identified simultaneously with the country of residence, with Russia, and with the former Soviet Union (Hagendoorn et al 2001). Although national identity (ethnic minority) and language spoken (linguistic minority) are mixed and both are ideologically loaded, the literature suggests that using the term “Russian speaker” is more accurate to describe this minority group than using the term “Russian” (e.g. Laitin 1998).

Thus, I settled on language as a primary marker for Russian ethnic minority status. However, this solution does not completely solve the problem of concept equivalence. Table 2 presents the variety of survey items concerning ethic identity available in the survey projects I selected for harmonization. All questions can be divided into three main categories: ethnic group (Caucasus Barometer), native language (Consolidation of Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and Life in Transition), and language used at home (the rest of the surveys). In the European Values Survey the only available information about the language respondent preferred to use is the language of the interview, which can be the native language, the language used at home, or none of these. The issue of using the ethnic group indicator in the case of the Caucasus Barometer is also questionable and needs further investigation.

Table 2. Items about Ethnic Minority Status in International Survey Projects

International Survey project Item Wording Identification of Ethnic Minority Status
Language used at home Ethnic group Native language
Caucasus Barometer There are a number of ethnic groups living in this country. Which ethnic group do you consider yourself a part of? X
Consolidation of Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe In what language did/do you communicate with your mother? X
European Social Survey What language or languages do you speak most often at home? X
European Values Study Language of the interview X X
Life in Transition What is your mother tongue? X
World Values Survey What language do you normally speak at home? X
New Baltics Barometer What language did you speak at home when you were a child? X

It could be said that harmonizing (Russian) minority status involves a series of tradeoffs between increasing concept equivalence and increasing country and time coverage. To lessen such compromises as much as possible, I intend to construct a set of control variables that will account for inter-project differences in question wording (Slomczynski, Tomescu-Dubrow and Jenkins 2016, eds.). These control indicators can be used in substantive analyses, to partial out item-related methodological variability. A complementary step would be to compare the proportion of Russian-speakers obtained via language/ethnic group identification in any given country with official statistical records on the size of the Russian minority in that country. In any case, I have found that to harmonize even a limited range of ethnic minorities, it is necessary to delve deep into history and the qualitative and quantitative methodological studies about the minorities of interest.



Hagendoorn L., Linssen H., Tumanov S. (eds.) 2001.  Intergroup Relations in States of the Former Soviet Union: The Perception of Russians, London: Phycology Press.

Laitin D.D. 1998. Identity in formation: The Russian-speaking populations in the near abroad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lambert P.S. 2005. “Ethnicity and the Comparative Analysis of Contemporary Survey Data” [in:] Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik J.H.P, Harkness J.A.( eds), Methodological Aspects in Cross-National Research, ZUMA, Mannheim

Tishkov V., Zayinchkovskaya Z., Vitkovskaya G. 2005. Migration in the countries of the Former Soviet Union, paper prepared for the Policy Analysis and Research Program of the Global Commission on International Migration, Global Commission on International Migration.

Slomczynski, Kazimierz M, Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, and J. Craig Jenkins, with Marta Kołczyńska, Przemek Powałko, Ilona Wysmułek, Olena Oleksiyenko, Marcin W. Zieliński, and Joshua Dubrow. 2016. Democratic Values and Protest Behavior in Cross-National Perspective. Harmonization of Data from International Survey Projects. Technical Report. Warsaw: IFiS Publishers.


Olena Oleksiyenko is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School for Social Research at IFiS PAN. Currently she works as a research assistant in the Data Harmonization Project  and the Polish Panel Survey (POLPAN) 1988-2013  project conducted at IFiS PAN.