Race and ethnicity are important concepts in the field of sociology and are ones that are studied a great deal. Race plays a large role in everyday human interactions and sociologists want to study how, why, and what the outcomes are of these interactions.Sociologists look at many questions related to race and ethnicity, including:
- What is race?
- What is ethnicity?
- Why does society treat racial and ethnic groups differently, and why is there social inequality between these groups?
- How are these divisions and inequalities able to persist so stubbornly, and how extensive are they?
What is the difference between race and ethnicity?
Within sociology, the terms race, ethnicity, minority, and dominant group all have very specific and different meanings. To understand the sociological perspective on race and ethnicity, it is important to understand the meanings of these concepts.
An ethnic group is a social category of people who share a common culture, such as a common language, a common religion, or common norms, customs, practices, and history. Ethnic groups have a consciousness of their common cultural bond. An ethnic group does not exist simply because of the common national or cultural origins of the group, however. They develop because of their unique historical and social experiences, which become the basis for the group’s ethnic identity. For example, prior to immigration to the United States, Italians did not think of themselves as a distinct group with common interests and experiences. However, the process of immigration and the experiences they faced as a group in the United States, including discrimination, created a new identity for the group. Some examples of ethnic groups include Italian Americans, Polish Americans, Mexican Americans, Arab Americans, and Irish Americans. Ethnic groups are also found in other societies, such as the Pashtuns in Afghanistan or the Shiites in Iraq, whose ethnicity is base on religious differences.
Like ethnicity, race is primarily, though not exclusively, a socially constructed category. A race is a group that is treated as distinct in society based on certain characteristics. Because of their biological or cultural characteristics, which are labeled as inferior by powerful groups in society, a race is often singled out for differential and unfair treatment. It is not the biological characteristics that define racial groups, but how groups have been treated historically and socially. Society assigns people to racial categories (White, Black, etc.) not because of science or fact, but because of opinion and social experience. In other words, how racial groups are defined is a social process; it is socially constructed.
A minority group is any distinct group in society that shares common group characteristics and is forced to occupy low status in society because of prejudice and discrimination. A group may be classified as a minority on the basis of ethnicity, race, sexual preference, age, or class status. It is important to note that a minority group is not necessarily the minority in terms of numbers, but it is a group that holds low status in relation to other groups in society (regardless of the size). The group that assigns a racial or ethnic group to subordinate status in society is called the dominant group.
Major Sociological Theories of Race and Ethnicity
There are several sociological theories about why prejudice, discrimination, and racism exist. Current sociological theories focus mainly on explaining the existence of racism, particular institutional racism. The three major sociological perspectives (functionalist theory, symbolic interaction theory, and conflict theory) each have their own explanations to the existence of racism.
Functionalist theorists argue that in order for race and ethnic relations to be functional and contribute to the harmonious conduct and stability of society, racial and ethnic minorities must assimilate into that society. Assimilation is a process in which a minority becomes absorbed into the dominant society – socially, economically, and culturally.
Symbolic interaction theorists look at two issues in relation to race and ethnicity. First, they look at the role of social interaction and how it reduces racial and ethnic hostility. Second, they look at how race and ethnicity are socially constructed. In essence, symbolic interactionists ask the question, “What happens when two people of different race or ethnicity come in contact with one another and how can such interracial or interethnic contact reduce hostility and conflict?”
The basic argument made by conflict theorists is that class-based conflict is an inherent and fundamental part of society. These theorists thus argue that racial and ethnic conflict is tied to class conflict and that in order to reduce racial and ethnic conflict, class conflict must first be reduced.
Giddens, A. (1991). Introduction to Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.