An Introduction to the Concept of ‘Race’ for Sociology Students

Race is now discredited historical concept which classifies people on the basis of biological differences.

‘Race’ is a historical concept used to categorise peoples based on biological differences such as skin colour and body type.

Today it is clear that there is no scientific basis for there being different races based on biological differences, but the historical ideas of ‘scientific racism’ have done much to shape social inequalities in the present, so we still need to deal with the now discredited term ‘race’ to understand inequalities today.

The concept of Race has been used by powerful groups as part of their strategies of domination, examples of which are the slave system in American history, and the holocaust against the Jews in Nazi Germany, and the contemporary situation of African Americans and Jews today cannot be understood without reference to racial segregation and racial ideologies – thus we still need to use and ‘deal with’ the term ‘race.

The historical concept of race

There have been numerous attempts by governments to establish categories of people based on skin colour or racial type. However these schemes have never been successful, with some identifying just four or five major categories and others as many as three dozen. Such disagreement over categorisations does not provide a reliable basis for social scientific research.

In many ancient civilisations, distinctions were often made between social groups on visible skin colour differences, usually between lighter and darker skin tones. However, before the modern period, it was more common for perceived distinctions to be based on tribal or kinship affiliations. These groups were numerous and the basis of their classification was relatively unconnected to modern ideas of race, with its biological or genetic connotations. Instead, classification rested on cultural similarity and group membership.

Scientific Racism

Theories of racial difference based on supposedly scientific methods were devised in Europe the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and used to justify the emerging social order – in which European nations came to control overseas territories through colonialism.

Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816 -82), sometimes referred to as the ‘father of modern racism’ proposed the existence of just three races – white (Caucasian), black (Negroid) and Yellow (Mongoloid).

According to Gobineau, the white race possessed superior intelligence, morality and willpower, and these properties explained their technical, economic and political superiority, while the black race were the least capable race – possessing the lowest intelligence, an animal nature, and a lack of morality, which served to justify their position in the American society as slaves.

Such wild generalizations have today been discredited, but they have been extremely influential, forming part of Nazi ideology in 1930s and 40s Germany, as well as the ideology of racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in the USA.

There is a link here to social action theory as the use of the concept of race illustrates W.I Thomas’ famous theorem that ‘when men define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences’. In other words, despite the fact that there is no objective basis for racial differences, because people in power have believed these differences to exist, they have perpetuated social orders which have systematically disadvantaged (in the case of European-colonial history) non-white people.

No such thing as Races

Many biologists report that there are no clear-cut races, just a range of physical variations in the human species. Differences in physical type arise from population inbreeding which varies according to the degree of contact between different groups. The genetic diversity within populations that share visible physical traits (such as skin colour) is just as great as the genetic diversity between populations.

As a result of such findings, the scientific community has virtually abandoned the concept of race. UNESCO recognized these findings in its 1978 Declaration of Race and Racial Prejudice:

‘All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity’.

Some sociologists argue that race is nothing more than an ideological construct and should therefore be abandoned, because simply using the term perpetuates the very idea that there are significant racial differences between humans

Unfortunately, despite the biological facts of there being no signficant differences between the peoples of planet earth, the idea of ‘race’ still has meaning for many people and forms the basis for discrimination in many societies around the world today.

Students of sociology will come across the term ‘race’ in many text books, but often in inverted commas to reflect the problems with the concept discussed below.

Racialization

The process through which understandings of race are used to classify individuals or groups of people is called ‘racialization’. Historically, some groups of people came to be labelled as distinct on the basis of naturally occurring physical features. From the fifteenth century onwards, as Europeans came into contact with people from different regions of the world, attempts were made to explain perceived differences. Non-European populations were racialized in opposition to the European ‘white race’.

In some instances, this racialization developed into institutions backed up by legal structures, such as the slave system in the United States, or the Apartheid system in South Africa.

More commonly, however, social institutions have become racialized in a de facto manner – in other words, informal white prejudice and discrimination have resulted in a situation in which institutions have come to be dominated by white people, with non-white people being under-represented.

In racialized systems, the life chances of individuals are shaped by their position in that system – in European societies, for example, you would expect white people to have greater life chances in relation to education and work (for example), while non-white people would suffer reduced life chances .

It follows that racialization (and the ideas of ‘race’ that inform the process) is an importance factor in the reproduction of power and inequality in a society.

The concept of racialization might be a powerful tool for challenging racist ideology: because it essentially names the process for what it is – a purely subjective process used by the powerful to maintain positions of privilege, rather than the social divisions being created being based on any really existing significant objective differences  between individuals.

Signposting and Related Posts

I use this material as part of an introduction to sociology. You might also like this related post:

What is Racism?

Sources used to write this post include:

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Concept of ‘Race’ for Sociology Students”

  1. Fourth paragraph, typo: “face” should be “race” third sentence. “These groups were numerous and the basis of their classification was relatively unconnected to modern ideas of *face*, with its biological or genetic connotations.

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