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 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 perspectives on race and ethnicity, it is important to understand the meanings of these concepts. An ethnic group is a group of people who share a common culture, such as a language, religion, 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 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. Examples of this would be the blacks, homeless population, Homosexual population and the elder population. 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. Examples of this would be the wealthy and low class. Even though the lower class out numbers the wealthy they are still thought of as the power group. There are several sociological theories about why prejudice, discrimination, and racism exist. The three major sociological perspectives are the functionalist theory, symbolic interaction theory, and conflict theory. They each have their own explanations to the existence of racism. The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in how social order is possible or how society remains relatively stable. From this perspective, disorganization in the system, such as racisms, leads to change because societal components must adjust to achieve stability. When one part of the system is not working or is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates social problems, which leads to social change. Durkheim in “The Division of Labor in Society” said "If one class of society is obliged, in order to live, to take any price for its services, while another can abstain from such action thanks to resources at its disposal which, however, are not necessarily due to any social superiority, the second has an unjust advantage over the first at law. In other words, there cannot be rich and poor a birth without there being unjust contracts." This quote can be used to argue that all minorities will somehow face racism. Because society is built on some form of racism because without the lower class the upper class would not exist. Because society is more than the sum of its parts; rather, each part of society has a place in the overall picture. Minorities have to exist in society. The different ethnicities in our society each have to fulfill different needs and each have a particular role to play in shaping our society. The parts all depend on each other. Functionalist theorists also argue that in order for race and ethnic relations to be functional and contribute to the balanced conduct and stability of society, racial and ethnic minorities must integrate into that society. Integration is a process in which a minority becomes absorbed into the dominant society – socially, economically, and culturally. Another theory to look at is the Conflict theory which emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order. This perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who saw society as fragmented into groups that compete for social and economic resources. Social order is maintained by domination, with power in the hands of those with the greatest political, economic, and social resources. When consensus exists, it is attributable to people being united around common interests, often in opposition to other groups. According to conflict theory, inequality exists because those in control of a unbalanced share of society’s wealth actively defend their advantages. The masses are not bound to society by their shared values, but by coercion at the hands of those in power. This perspective emphasizes social control, not equality and conformity. Groups and individuals advance their own interests, struggling over control of societal resources. Those with the most resources exercise power over others with inequality and power struggles resulting. There is great attention paid to class, race, and gender in this perspective because they are seen as the grounds of the most pertinent and enduring struggles in society. In a letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, in1846, Marx wrote this about slavery in America , "As for slavery, there is no need for me to speak of its bad aspects. The only thing requiring explanation is the good side of slavery. I do not mean indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat; I mean direct slavery, the slavery of the Blacks in Surinam, in Brazil, in the southern regions of North America. Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World" To say the Karl Marx was a racist is an understatement but this is what the conflict theory is all about. Whereas most other sociological theories focus on the positive aspects of society, conflict perspective focuses on the negative, conflicted, and ever-changing nature of society. Unlike functionalists who defend the status quo, avoid social change, and believe people cooperate to effect social order, conflict theorists challenge the status quo, encourage social change (even when this means social revolution), and believe rich and powerful people force social order on the poor and the weak. 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. 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?”
Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. Giddens, A. (1991). Introduction to Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.