The contributions made by sociologists to understandings
‘Race’ and ‘ethnic group’ are commonly used terms, but while they seem simple they are, in reality, very complicated issues. In sociology these terms are defined differently, even though they are frequently used interchangeably, sociological theory maintains a clear distinction between these concepts. Sociologists, since in the early 1900’s have been engaged in discussions attempting to describe how these two terms exist side by side.
There is no doubt that sociologists have made an immense contribution in the understandings of the concepts ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’. These contributions have been there, since the origin of the study of race as a field of social scientific inquiry and research in the earlier parts of the last century in the work of a number of sociologists, most notably during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
This essay will be seeking to explain these understandings of the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’ from the origin of the study to the current status quo. Many questions have been asked about these two concepts on how they have become such key themes in the past years and also in contemporary theoretical debates. This essay will unpack on these concepts under the following headings: historical and theoretical perspectives, migrant labour and, race and ethnic group, ethnic group, and race and modernity.
‘Ethnic group’ and ‘race’ are viewed by themselves or by observers, as people who have or lay claim to shared antecedents. Fenton (2003) as defines these two concepts:
Race: a group of persons (animals or plants) connected by common descent or origin; a tribe, nation, or people regarded as of common stock.
Ethnic: (an adjective) pertaining to a race or nation; having common racial, cultural, religious or linguistic characteristics especially designating a racial or other group within a larger system.
Much of the sociological literature on these terms has been concerned to distinguish them by means of separation that is by distinguishing them in such a way that one makes a clean break from the other. It is far much better to start by saying that they both occupy the same terrain. There are some degrees of diversion in some of them, but they all articulate one message, which is a sense of people.
Historical and Theoretical Perspectives
This chapter will be exploring the contributions made by sociologists in describing the role that these concepts ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’ played in different historical contexts. How these concepts shaped the structure of particular societies? However, other writers argue that there is a lack of historical perspective concerning the positioning of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic groups’ in relation to sociological literature of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic groups’. Solomos and Back (1996:30), ‘this lack of historical perspective has meant that there are major lacunae in recent sociological studies of race relations’.
This assertion does not mean that there are no exceptions; there have been a number of studies in the origin and the changing usage of the idea of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’ in different societies. This is what this chapter seeks to explore:
1. The emergence of ideas about race and racism
It is obvious from the historical point of view that the notion of ‘race’ over the past two and half centuries that it has taken various forms in different national contexts. The best way of explaining this is by looking at the rise of modern racism in the European societies. Mosse (1985) argues that the notion of race is relatively recent tracing it back to the period of Enlightenment.
John Rex provides a statement about this predisposition: “political ideology, including racist ideology, has affected the understandings of European scholars of the role of pre-colonial social forms in the colonial and post-colonial period. At first it was fashionable to emphasise this role in order to denigrate colonial people.
They were represented as heathens, irredeemably different from Europeans and out of the mainstream of civilisation. Against such views radicals argued that ‘coloured people’ had the same needs as Europeans, that their societies were essentially the same and that the emphasis on archaic differences was simply a means of mystifying the process of exploitation. But this emphasis on the rationality of colonial society in turn led to a racist type of theory” (Rex, 1986:40).
In sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Europe, the word race was used for descendants of a common ancestor, emphasizing kinship linkages rather than physical characteristics such as hair type or skin colour. It was only in the late eighteenth century that the term race came to mean a category of human beings with distinctive physical characteristics transmitted by descent.
On how the concept race has taken different forms, Banton (1980) points out how the term ‘race’ can be located within a specific period of time. ‘Physical differences between peoples have been observed throughout human history; all over the world people developed words for delineating them. Race is a concept rooted in a particular culture and a particular period of history which brings with it suggestions about how these differences are to be explained’ (Banton, 1980:39).
Solomos and Back (1996), argues that Banton’s account provides valuable insight into the variety of usages of race over the past two hundred years or so. ‘What is clear from recent scholarship and research is that the usage of the category of race to classify various types of human beings is relatively recent, and indeed that the widespread phenomenon of the post Enlightenment period. This is not to say that the term race was not used in earlier times. The concept of race became part of the philosophical and popular language in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ (Solomos and Back, 1996:36).
2. The emergence of the ideas about ethnic groups and ethnicity
The term ‘ethnic group’ came widely into use in the 1970s, now this term play an important role in the sociological mind’s eye and in policy and political discourses. Sociologists Nathan Glazer (1983) defines ethnic groups as: A single family of social identities – a family which, in addition to races and ethnic groups, includes religions (as in Holland), language groups (as in Belgium), and all of which can be included in the most general term, ethnic groups, groups defined by descent, real or mythical, and sharing a common history and experience.
The term ethnic has been used as a synonym for the people thought to be culturally different. In Warner’s discourse then, ethnic means foreign and through low evaluation of cultural difference, inferior; ‘most ethnics are in lower social levels’ he writes, using ‘ethnics’ as a noun. ‘But this ethnic differentiation will fade, an epoch will have ended and the epoch of race will begin’ (Warner and Srole, 1945:285).
3. Slavery, Imperialism, Colonialism and Racist Ideology
Immanuel Kant’s use of the German phrase for races of mankind in the 1770s was one of the first explicit uses of the term in the sense of biologically distinct categories of human beings. In 1795 Johann Blumenbach, a German anatomist, established a racial classification system that became an influential typology. At the top of his racial hierarchy were the Caucasians (Europeans), followed in order by the Mongolians (Asians), the Ethiopians (Africans), the Americans (Native Americans), and the Malays (Polynesians) (Feagin, J. and Feagin, C. 1999).
Europeans for much of their histories have been largely isolated from contact with people who differed from them physically and culturally. Before the development of large sailing ships in the late 1400s, they had little contact with people from Asia, Africa, or the Americas. Soon, however, it was these northern Europeans who established slave systems in the Americas.
The slave colonies were legitimated and rationalized by the northern Europeans, including the English, who classified African slaves as a lesser race. The idea of race was not developed from close scientific observations of all human beings. Rather, race was, from its inception, a folk classification, a product of popular beliefs about human differences that evolved from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. (Feagin J. and Feagin C. 1999)
In much of the literature on the development of racist ideologies and practices an important role is assigned to the methods by which slavery, imperialism and colonialism helped to construct images of the ‘other’. This could be seen by studies done by sociologists and other social scientists on the development of images of colonized people and the manner in which these were popularised in European societies, such as Britain.
Solomos and Back (1996), argue that the problem in discussing the interplay between imperialism and colonialism with racism ‘is the tendency to over generalise without exploring in any detail the connections between the institutionalisation of imperial domination and colonialisation and the emergence of racist ideas and practices’ (Solomos and Back, 1996:46).
Most social scientists have been interested in studying the relationship between racism and imperialism how the latter influenced the former. Why and how common-sense images about race were influenced by the role that countries such as Britain played as colonial and imperial power. They have also studied how to analyse the present accounts of race and ethnicity by referring to the history of racial inequality.
Sociologists combine the past and present by using examples of black oppression, which is the analytic focus of such accounts. Slavery, colonialism, imperialism and racist ideology are symbolic of past oppression and inequalities, invoked to sustain an account of the present and assert continuity between past and present. History in this way is employed as a narrative device in which the forms of racial inequality are less important than its general essence-black oppression (Bulmer and Solomos, 1999).
It is important to analyse the history of racism in order to include the role played by processes of domination. This is shown by the interest of researchers and social scientists in the aftermath of colonialism, which was focused in fostering and spreading racial stereotypes and myths in the so-called civilized societies. But this does not mean that we should lose sight of the complexity and diversity of colonial social relations and blame many of the contemporary mores on the experience of slavery, colonialism and imperial domination.
Migrant labour and, race and ethnic group
In the nineteenth century the USA became a big target of immigrants, mostly from Europe and in the first half of the century mostly from Britain.
‘International migration is part of a transnational revolution that is re-shaping societies and politics around the globe… areas like the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Argentina are classical countries of migration. Their populations consist mainly of European immigrants and their descendants. The aboriginal populations of these countries have been partially destroyed and dispossessed; today the survivors have a marginal and discriminated experience’ (Castles and Miller, 1993:5).
For most of the second half of the twentieth century perhaps the key process that has shaped debates about race and ethnicity, especially in Europe, has been the phenomenon of new patterns of international labour migration. After the Second World War and the end of the colonial era, there were a vast number of migrant workers moving to Europe, especially Britain experienced many migrant workers from the commonwealth countries. Workers from the Afro-Caribbean, east African-Asian, Indian and Pakistani communities were a main group of migrants that moved to Britain.
This process has generally been seen as the outcome of both the demand for labour in the advanced industrial economies as well as pressure on migrants to move in search of employment and living conditions. In general sense labour migration is not specific to the period after 1945. Eric Wolf’s (1982) account on the complex processes involved in European expansion since the sixteenth century has shown quite clearly how the movement of labour has been at the core of the growth of capitalist economies.
‘Capitalist accumulation thus continues to engender new working class in widely dispersed areas of the world. It recruits these working classes from a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds and inserts them into variable political and economic hierarchies’ (Wolf, 1982:383).
It is obvious that there is a large amount of historical work on race and ethnic group in a migration context. Sociologists in the contemporary sociology literature on ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’, do they use this historical work to inform the current understandings of these concepts? This is a question that will need a more in-depth study in order to get a proper answer.
Most of the movements described above were of field workers to plantation economies and peasants to industrial economies in the nineteenth century and, labouring and service workers to rich economies in the twentieth century (Fenton, 2003). Many populations identified ‘ethnic’ in the contemporary world are identified as such because an indigenous population views them, whether their migration is recent or quite distant.
Ethnic group and Race, and Modernity
This chapter aims to illustrate the role of sociologists in addressing the problems of ethnicity and racism in the modern world. Theorizing these concepts will be an exercise of looking back on how ethnic and racial identities are formed and how relationships with others are articulated.
‘The much wider questions are those addressed to the problem of the “activation” of ethnic identities, that is towards understanding the conditions under which ethnicity becomes important or even decisive in everyday discourse and exchanges, or in the major political mobilizations in the public sphere. This requires an outline of a theory of modernity. It is, of course, only an outline, with selected features of the contemporary world singled out and highlighted, as they bear upon questions of ethnicity, nation and racism’ (Fenton, 2003:182-3).
Why modernity, how can it give an understanding of these concepts. What do I understand by modernity, how does it impact on the contemporary understandings of this concepts? To understand modernity, we need to understand the linkages that governed three far-reaching transformations that took place in the non-European countries during the last two or three hundred years: slavery, colonialism, and imperial domination and formation of racist ideology. I see them as so closely linked that one needs to view them as a single historical process, which I think of as modernity. The word modernization is used to refer to the global impact of modernity, especially under the influence of industrial imperialism.
The basic reasons for this transformation can be found, I think, in the dynamics of modernity, as characterized by industrialization, democratisation, and nationalism. Cultural differences are, indeed, ancient and myths about past injustices and glories provide ammunition for modern ethnic leaders as they promote contemporary causes. However, these leaders are able to win followers and become successful only because of the gigantic social transformations caused by modernity that have globalised the world today. The thesis’s that ethnicity and racism are both primordial residue that modernity can erase inverts the truth. Actually, modernity has caused ethnicity and racism to become an increasingly important problem.
Sociologists played and they are still playing an important role in providing the understandings of the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’, I have illustrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’ change their meaning with time, depending on their location within a specific period of time. Sociologists are able to adapt to these changes and provide different meanings in different times. The major challenge faced by sociologists is to unite the past and the present in order to eradicate the existing stereotypes and prejudices based on race and ethnicity.
Understanding these concepts is not enough; the issues of racism and ethnicity still remain sensitive. South Africa, for example, it is free from the apartheid but black people are still suffering from acts of racism, white farmers killing black workers, such acts are exposed to the public by media or social scientists working in the field of race and ethnic relations. In America the Klux Klax Klan are still practicing acts of racism, they victimize ethnic minority groups and some are serving in the police force, they have used their work and power to attack people from ethnic minority groups.
These incidents are happening every part of the world, were people from different racial or ethnic groups are living in the same vicinity. This ongoing discrimination warrants a scientific inquiry that will investigate why there are new forms of apartheid? What can be done to prevent these acts? And, what will be a long-term solution?
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