race, sociology of
However, a feature of this definition of race as a social construct is that it downplays the extent to which sectors of the population may actually form a discrete ethnic group; that is, share certain characteristics on the basis of common historical origin, close-knit patterns of social interaction, and a sense of common identity. Developments such as the Black Power movement in America in the 1960s, and the growth of ethnic minority cultural and political movements (especially among the young) have stimulated sociological research on the nature and forms of ethnicity. Again, like much of the rest of the sociology of race, this is a highly controversial field of study. Some sociologists argue that such studies, particularly when they involve research into what may somewhat ethnocentrically be defined as deviant subcultures, can confirm or reinforce racist attitudes and racial discrimination by the majority population. A related danger is that of the indiscriminate labelling or stereotyping of a racially defined minority as an ethnic minority (that is one which has a common culture and life-style) when this is not the case. There has also been a tendency, when ethnic minorities are studied in isolation from the wider society, to view their distinctive life-styles as a simple legacy of their past history, failing to recognize the ways in which these are shaped and changed by their current location in racially divided societies. In general, such research exaggerates the extent to which minorities are located in relatively enclosed ethnically defined social structures, separate from those of the majority society.
The location of racially defined groups in the stratification system of the wider society is a much-debated issue. Its salience partly reflects the historical circumstances in which this branch of sociology has developed: the legacy of slavery and continuing immigration of non-White minorities in the United States, the history of colonialism, and the more recent immigration of minorities from the Third World in Europe. There are several competing approaches (for an overview see R. Miles , Racism, 1989
The functionalist theories, largely developed in the United States from around the time of the First World War by Robert Park and others, assume an eventual assimilation of racially defined minorities into the stratification system of the majority host society and the restoration of social equilibrium which has been disturbed by their arrival. Racial prejudice and discrimination is a temporary phenomenon occurring in this difficult period of readjustment. Emphasis is here placed on the need for minorities to abandon their imported values and life-styles and accept those which it is assumed characterize the host society. This theory has been heavily criticized for its ethnocentric assumption that assimilation is (or ought to be) the outcome of host-immigrant encounters; for ignoring the possibility that continued conflict or some form of racial pluralism might occur; and for its underestimation of the empirically observable extent and persistence of racial prejudice and discrimination.
A more sophisticated approach, illustrated most clearly in the work of John Rex, builds upon Weberian premisses. What Rex call ‘race relations situations’ involve a particular type of intergroup conflict and result in racially categorized groups being distinctively located in the overall system of social stratification. In empirical work in the United Kingdom, Rex employs a Weberian concept of class to analyse differences in Black and White life-chances, and concludes that ‘race’ and racial discrimination result in Blacks being located at the bottom of and outside the main White class structure. In so far as this is creating distinctive forms of consciousness and political action then a Black underclass is in the process of formation.
Early Marxist theories (notably, O. C. Cox , Class, Caste and Race, 1948
) proposed a far simpler connection between race and class, seeing racism as a ruling-class ideology which developed under capitalism in order to divide—and hence help control—Black and White workers who shared a common and fundamental class identity. This argument has been heavily criticized as historically inaccurate and irredeemably functionalist—explaining the origins of racism by means of the functions which it has sometimes served under capitalism. A considerable range of neo-Marxist and post-Marxist approaches (between which controversy often rages) have subsequently been developed. These seek to provide a less deterministic account of the relations between race, class, and capitalism. For example, Robert Miles (Racism and Migrant Labour, 1982)
analyses the construction of so-called ‘racialized class fractions’ in advanced capitalist societies.
Sometimes rather separated from these theoretical debates (though also generated by and contributing to them) there are a wide range of empirically grounded sociological inquiries—by far the best of which are by American sociologists. These include studies of racial belief systems; the extent and nature of racial discrimination and disadvantage; the politics of ‘race’ and the impact of state policies on racialized minorities; and the distribution, concentration, and segregation of minority populations—especially in housing- and labour-markets. Examples here might include Lee Rainwater's excellent (though controversial) study of Black families in a federal housing project (Behind Ghetto Walls, 1970); Howard Schuman et al.'s survey of Racial Attitudes in America (1985); and Black Men, White Cities (1973), Ira Katznelson's comparative study of the political responses to Black migration to the Northern cities of the United States and in the United Kingdom. The best summary of the evidence for Britain is David Mason's Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain (1995).
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