The term minority group and its opposite, majority group, have been widely used both among social scientists and the general public in recent decades. In social scientific (and often popular) use of these terms, they do not usually refer per se to a numerical minority or majority. Rather, the social-scientific meaning of a minority group is a group that is assigned an inferior status in society, one that enjoys less than its proportionate share of scarce resources. Frequently, minority group members are discriminated against, and in some cases they are severely and systematically exploited for economic gain by the majority group, as illustrated in U.S. history by enslavement of African-Americans and by the taking of land from American Indians and from Mexicans who settled in what became the U.S. Southwest.
Usually, a minority group is defined on the basis of a relatively permanent and unchanging status and on the basis of being different—often visibly—from the majority group. This definition includes minorities based on ascribed statuses such as race, ethnicity, and gender and other statuses that are difficult or impossible to change, such as sexual orientation and disability. It also includes groups with common identities that are deeply held and relatively unlikely to change, most commonly religious or linguistic groups. When minority status is assigned on the basis of race or ethnicity, it often involves groups that have been conquered or colonized in the past, as is the case, in the United States, of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans, and American Indians. In these instances, the degree of subordination experienced by the groups tends to be particularly intense. It is notable, for example, that the present and historic status of the four aforementioned groups is significantly more disadvantaged than that of most immigrant groups in the United States. For all types of minority groups, it is typically true that (1) the group is different in some way that is regarded as socially significant from those who hold the dominant influence in society, and (2) on the basis of that difference the group is assigned to a subordinate or disadvantaged status.
Widening the Definition
The concept of minorities has existed for over a century, and until the 1960s and 1970s the term generally referred to national or ethnic minorities in heterogeneous nation-states. In the 1960s and 1970s, the range of characteristics used to identify minority groups widened (e.g., gender, disability, sexual orientation), and the practice of defining minority groups primarily on the basis of power and status disadvantages became common. The focus on disadvantages is evident in the writings of Schermerhorn (1970), who argued that minority groups should be defined on the basis of relative size and power. A group disadvantaged with respect to both size and power, in Schermerhorn's definition, was a minority group, while a group advantaged in both regards was a majority group. A large group without power was referred to as mass subjects, while a small group with power was called an elite. In common usage, however, the term mass subjects is rarely used in the early twenty-first century. While elite is more widely used, it is usually employed in an economic and political sense without a direct tie to race, ethnicity, religion, language, or other characteristics commonly associated with minority and majority groups. It is, however, usually true that elites, as referred to in this sense, are members of dominant or advantaged racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.
While it is usually true that minority groups are numerical minorities, this is not always the case, as is illustrated by the subordinate status of women in the United States and, until recently, blacks in South Africa. Although Schermerhorn's term mass subjects might be a more appropriate label for such groups, they are more commonly referred to as having a minority status, referring to their subordinated position with regard to power, status, and economic opportunities. Although over 80 percent of the South African population is black, the political system was, until the mid-1990s, completely under the control of a small white numerical minority (but a majority group in the social-scientific sense) since the country was created in 1949. Racial separation and discrimination were written into the laws at that time, and these laws remained in effect for forty years. In the early twenty-first century South Africa is a representative democracy, and the black numerical majority is in political control. Yet, in another sense, blacks still remain a minority group in South Africa, since the economic wealth of the country remains largely controlled by whites.
Another instance of a numerical majority that is a sociological minority group is women in the United States. Women make up slightly over half of the U.S. population but relatively few hold offices in the nation's higher political governing bodies (such as the U.S. Congress). Even at the start of the twenty-first century, full-time working women are paid only about 76 percent of the wages of similarly educated working men (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). Thus, even though they are a numerical majority, women have in many ways been relegated to a subordinate role in American society. Accordingly, they can be regarded as a minority group in the social-scientific sense.
A helpful way to think about minority and majority groups, suggested by Norman Yetman (1991, p. 11), is to consider minority as a synonym for subordinate, and majority as a synonym for dominant.
Minority Status and the Individual
Discussion thus far has focused on groups because minority or majority status is defined on the basis of belonging to an identifiable group in society. An individual may be black, or Muslim, or female, or gay, or a non-English speaker, or have a disability. In each case, such an identity or social characteristic will identify that individual as belonging to a group with a collective disadvantage or a group that is the object of collective discrimination, exploitation, or stigma. However, although minorities are defined on the basis of groups, the consequences are very real for individuals (Goldman, 2001). It is individual human beings who are denied employment, schooling, or housing because of their race, disability, or sexual orientation, persecuted because of their religious beliefs, ridiculed because of their language, or underpaid because of their sex.
In the early twenty-first century, there has been some criticism of the term minority (Wilkinson, 2002). A number of objections have been raised, including the following: (1) since such status is not defined on the basis of numbers, minority is not a correct term; (2) the term minority can be a negative label and defines the groups so labeled from the standpoint of the dominant group; (3) groups with little in common, such as African-Americans and white women, are lumped together under one rather meaningless label; (4) the criteria used to define minorities are ambiguous and inconsistent; (5) the statuses that form the basis of defining minority groups include both true ascribed statuses and statuses that involve an element of choice (e.g., religious belief); and (6) the term minority obscures the very real impacts of racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination, using an ill-defined term to focus on groups rather than on systemic discrimination. Despite these genuine difficulties with the term, it continues to be used widely, both in social science and in popular terminology. A search of the EBSCO Academic Search Elite database in May 2003 yielded 11,822 hits on the term minorities. One reason for this common use (though also a point of objection from critics of its scientific validity) is that it has been reified through governmental protections for a wide range of groups labeled as "minorities." In addition—at least in the social sciences—there is general agreement on the experiences that lead a group to be considered a minority group. These experiences include victimization, discrimination, exploitation, and political and economic disadvantage. While each group considered a minority experiences these processes in a unique way, all such groups experience them to a greater or lesser degree. Moreover, possible alternative terms also pose problems: it is not clear, for example, that subordinate conveys a more positive image than minority. The purpose, if not always the consequence, in using such terms in social science is not to convey negative connotations, but rather to describe a similar situation—minority or subordinate status—that is experienced by a number of different groups.
See also Discrimination ; Ethnicity and Race ; Identity ; Prejudice .
Blauner, Robert. Racial Oppression in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Goldmann, Gustave. "Defining and Observing Minorities: An Objective Assessment." Statistical Journal of the UN Economic Commission for Europe 18, nos. 2/3 (2001): 205–216.
Killian, Lewis M. "What or Who Is a 'Minority'?" Michigan Sociological Review 10 (1996): 18–31.
Schermerhorn, Richard A. Comparative Ethnic Relations: A Framework for Theory and Research. New York: Random House, 1970.
U.S. Census Bureau. "Current Population Survey—Annual Demographic Survey. Table PINC-05. Work Experience in 2001—People 15 Years Old and Over by Total Money Earnings in 2001, Age, Race, Hispanic Origin and Sex." Available on the World Wide Web at http://ferret.bls.census.gov/macro/032002.
Wilkinson, Doris. "The Clinical Irrelevance and Scientific Invalidity of the 'Minority Notion': Deleting It from the Social Science Vocabulary." Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 29, no. 2 (2002): 21–34.
Yetman, Norman R. Majority and Minority: The Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity in American Life. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991.
John E. Farley
mi·nor / ˈmīnər/ • adj. 1. lesser in importance, seriousness, or significance: she requested a number of minor alterations. ∎ (of a surgical operation) comparatively simple and not life-threatening.2. Mus. (of a scale) having intervals of a semitone between the second and third degrees, and (usually) the fifth and sixth, and the seventh and eighth. Contrasted with major. ∎ (of an interval) characteristic of a minor scale and less by a semitone than the equivalent major interval.Compare with diminished. ∎ (of a key or mode) based on a minor scale, tending to produce a sad or pensive effect: Concerto in A minor.3. Brit., dated (following a surname in public schools) indicating the second or younger of two brothers or boys with the same family name: Smith minor.4. Logic (of a term) occurring as the subject of the conclusion of a categorical syllogism. ∎ (of a premise) containing the minor term in a categorical syllogism.• n. 1. a person under the age of full legal responsibility.2. Mus. a minor key, interval, or scale. ∎ (Minor) Bell-ringing a system of change-ringing using six bells.3. (the minors) the minor leagues in a particular professional sport, esp. baseball: he's been pitching in the minors for six years.4. a college student's subsidiary subject or area of concentration: a minor in American Indian studies.5. Logic a minor term or premise.6. Bridge short for minor suit.PHRASES: in a minor key (esp. of a literary work) understated.PHRASAL VERBS: minor in study or qualify in as a subsidiary subject at college or university.
mi·nor·i·ty / məˈnôrətē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the smaller number or part, esp. a number that is less than half the whole number: harsher measures for the minority of really serious offenders | [as adj.] a minority party. ∎ the number of votes cast for or by the smaller party in a legislative assembly: a blocking minority of 23 votes. ∎ a relatively small group of people, esp. one commonly discriminated against in a community, society, or nation, differing from others in race, religion, language, or political persuasion: representatives of ethnic minorities | [as adj.] minority rights. 2. the state or period of being under the age of full legal responsibility.PHRASES: be (or find oneself) in a minority of one often humorous be the sole person to be in favor of or against something.in the minority belonging to or constituting the smaller group or number: those who acknowledge his influence are certainly in the minority.
So minoress nun of the second order of St. Francis. XIV. minority XVI. — F. or medL.
An infant or person who is under the age of legal competence. A term derived from thecivil law, which described a person under a certain age as less than so many years. In most states, a person is no longer a minor after reaching the age of 18 (though state laws might still prohibit certain acts until reaching a greater age; e.g., purchase of liquor). Also, less; of less consideration; lower; a person of inferior condition.
The state or condition of a minor; infancy. Opposite of majority. The smaller number of votes of a deliberative assembly; opposed to majority. In context of the Constitution's guarantee ofequal protection, minority does not have merely numerical denotation but refers to identifiable and specially disadvantaged groups such as those based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.