"We take race... to be a social concept that is held by groups and individuals to
differentiate other groups as being distinct from themselves; physical appearance and cultural
indicators are a key criteria of such labelling processes. The use of the term race is purposive...
to distinguish a power relationship of superiority and inferiority."
(p56, Topics in Sociology)
Since the advent of communities and societies within humanity here has been a drive to
differentiate between "them" and "us". Every culture has those who are lower in the social strata
and this is where groupings for other races appear. Each society is almost pre-programmed to
see those who are different to them as a separate (and mostly inferior) group or race. Skin
can be factors which are determinants of
"other" groups. Such constraints and the wide spread nature of the phenomenon of race has
meant that it is a phenomenon, along with other recurring social themes, that has been explained
"Confronted with the diversity of the human world it is understandable that social
investigators have attempted to classify groups whose physical and cultural profusion exhibits
(p56, Topics in
Sociologists themselves divide people or communities into groups to make the study
of social phenomenon easier. In recent years, because of the many different ways groups can be
defined as separate entities, the term ethnic group has become more fashionable and is often
used to describe sections of the population who are not what we might term racially
Some of the major sociological theories have described their views relating to race,
detailing how society copes with the problems of racial and ethnic diversity as well as inspecting
the positive impacts of ethnic plurality.
Marxists were to express their views on race and ethnicity and as with all other parts of
Marxist theory the intra -racial problems and the isolation of ethnic communities were caused by
capitalism. Marxist theory on this subject was first brought about by Engels, in fact, who studied
migrant groups within Britain, such as the Irish who because of the capitalist system in which
such workers were placed at the bottom of the working ladder, were discriminated against. It
served the capitalists well to allow and, indeed, encourage such discrimination as it would of
course mean that the socially deprived, migrant group were blamed for problems which might
arise such as a decline in a certain labour market. It wasn't that the capitalists were not creating
enough industry or could not provide long-term employment in many sectors but that the
incoming migrants were "stealing" the jobs of the established populace. This belief allowed an
unequal distribution of wealth to grow, with the workers not realising. It was also divisive and
meant that there were "lower" groups in society who might then do a job which they might not
have if not pushed into this status.
"The ruling class tends to strive to legitimise its domination as being natural or
necessary and establish this in the consciousness of the proletariat... racism was a part of the
ideological apparatus of capitalism."
(p73, Topics in Sociology)
The immigrant groups, like women, were also a reserve army of labour for the capitalists
from a Marxist point of view and because of their status in society, their rights and their
treatment in the workplace was less likely to be examined or even then criticised.
This theory does give a good explanation as to how race and ethnic differences can be
used to divide groups in society and shows a trend which is apparent world-wide. The use of
racism to show inferiority in the migrant groups and their use of economics to illustrate it bring
together two main points on the reasoning behind institutionalised racism. However it, as with
most Marxist theory, over-emphasises economics and capitalism as a cause of racial tensions. It
ignores the mistrust of different cultures to each other in pre-capitalist society and also assumes
that there will always be conflict between groups. Out with this it relies on there being a
deliberate move to cause tension by capitalists and ignores the fact that in some instances such
groups have worked together within bodies such as the trade unions against the capitalists,
hardly showing a false-consciousness of different racial groups causing all the problems.
Black feminism was brought about because of the lack of representation of black women
within the women's rights movements. This in itself was a product of an almost unintentional
racism. Black women did not figure in the minds of the middle class white women who
campaigned for suffrage and women's rights. Thus black women were not only subjected to
patriarchal dominance but also racism and, because of the low social status of the black
community at that time, poverty; each multiplying the other.
Black feminists strove to highlight their own plight and multiple oppression in society,
bringing into the fore that sociology in itself was "colour blind" and did not deal with the social
problems of black women. Such women had an impact on making sociologists re-think their
"Understood is the desire for a compatible and progressive vision of freedom and
equality based on the historical and ongoing struggles against the race and gender (at least)
oppression Black American women have experienced... within the dominant culture"
Black feminists have brought about a revolution in sociological thought, stating that the
nature of the slave trade and the patriarchal western structure have led to the discrimination
against black women. They have challenged the social stereotypes which seem only to apply to
white women and are happy to show that they are
"brave, proud and strong"
(pg139, Haralambos and Holborn, Sociology themes and perspectives.)
Within the functionalist viewpoint the immigrant-host model is seen to show the
attitudes which refer to race.
"the immigrant-host model emphasises stability, shared moral values and slow
evolutionary change involving a process of adaptation"
(pg216, Haralambos and Holborn, Sociology themes and
Within this model full assimilation is favoured over diversity, with immigrants having to
become like the indigenous population and thus attaches very little importance to cultural
diversity. One of the first to describe this relationship, Robert. E. Park, made use of the
biological comparisons which are so common throughout the functionalist perspective. He used
the biological descriptions to place racial relations on a species-wide scale. Those who collated
with him on this model ignored any non-consensus within the host community, though, and
sought to downplay racism as being any large factor as it would only occur (as Park put it)
because those involved had
"a distinctive racial hallmark in the form of physical differences"
(pg216, Haralambos and Holborn, Sociology themes and
Using his biological model then we see that he is almost referring to some groups as
separate species ( he was talking of the conflict between black and white Americans ) and thus
harking back to the Victorian ideas of black people being racially inferior. this slightly
conservative approach is not unusual in functionalism though.
In the 1950's Shiela Patterson carried out an investigation into the assimilation of 1st
generation West-Indian immigrants into Brixton. She conducted interviews on 250 white and
150 afro-carribean people within the community to investigate the way in which the
communities had integrated. She described three stages; accommodation, integration and
assimilation as being the steps which immigrants must take to become a part of their host
community. Accommodation meant "minimal adaptation and acceptance" (pg218,
Haralambos and Holborn, Sociology themes and perspectives.) and thought that to achieve
this the West-Indians should aspire to "British standards" and do what they could to join in with
the activities of the community. Integration involved bringing themselves into direct and
frequent contact with the host community and finally assimilation in which the immigrants
would lose their "distinctive features" and become like the host population. Throughout her
work she stresses the need of the immigrant community to become like the hosts. Her attitude is
that it is not a "race situation" where there are divisions between racial groups, but an
"immigrant situation" which in her mind was an ever changing situation in Britain. Patterson
showed that most of the immigrants had not gone past the accommodation stage but guessed that
within decades the West-Indians would have fully assimilated into the community.
Her research highlights many areas within the relationships between immigrants and
hosts from a functionalist viewpoint and she does give a good explanation as to why and how
relationships might develop between groups.
However, because of the fact that she used a far higher number of British to
Afro-Caribbean subjects in her interviews might be said to have biased her results. The use of
such qualitative information is also not concurrent with the fact that she looks at the situation
from a Functionalist viewpoint though she does back this information up with quantitative data.
One other small flaw in her research may be that the finished article was released a full decade
after her research was completed. It is also noticeable throughout that she seems to be
unintentionally racist in the way that she stresses the need for the West-Indians to become more
British and seems to believe that assimilation can only occur when the immigrants had lost most
of their (outward at least ) cultural identity.
"Weber moves away from the structuralist views of sociologists like Marx...
towards the argument that physical and cultural differences (i.e. ethnic relations ) are important
if actors attach relevance or meaning to them"
(p68, Topics in
Weber's argument was that it was a matter of perception; ethnic groups were only a threat
if the indigenous population saw them as such. He stated that cultural identities could serve to
"separate" groups and thus how societies may come to create dominant and subordinate racial
groups. He saw that they were pushed into the lower categories of the social strata, becoming
another layer in the immense hierarchy of society. Because they can then only gain at first the
lowest jobs, housing etc. this will enforce the stereotype however Weber was optimistic and
stressed that integration was entirely possible, with ethnicity becoming no longer a layer - merit,
jobs and political tendencies becoming more defining matters.
Rex and Tomlinson continued this line, showing how this related to their theory of
the dual-labour market. They looked at immigration - in particular immigration of peoples from
the new commonwealth. they first described the two labour markets as they saw them : the
primary labour market which consisted of
"jobs with high wages, good working conditions, job security and opportunities
for on-the-job training"
And the secondary labour market made up of
"jobs with low wages, poor working conditions, little job security and few
opportunities for on-the-job training and promotion"
They showed that, statistically, higher numbers of those from ethnic minorities would go
into this secondary labour market. Although, they conceded, some of these immigrants did make
it into the primary labour market. Their own survey of 1100 people showed that by comparison
to their British counterparts those from ethnic minorities such as West Indians and Asians were
far more prevalent in unskilled manual work and under represented in "white collar" jobs. This,
to them, meant that these ethnic minorities were kept in the lower strata of society, held there by
the inability to be upwardly mobile within their jobs. Rex and Tomlinson thus concluded that
ethnic minorities formed an underclass but did not take into consideration British workers who
were in the same situation.
Using statistics and structured interviews was probably the best way to carry out this
research but because they set out to prove their dual labour market hypothesis it is possible that
their final conclusions from that data are highly subjective. Also the fact that they used a single
area limits the extent to which their theory can be used to describe the relationship between
ethnic minorities and the work they go into.
Ellis Cashmore looked at the way in which people interacted with each other within
several small communities. He set out to explore the "logic of racism" using the four
communities he had selected. He used communities which would allow him to make multiple
comparisons : middle class vs. working class, inner city vs. outer city, ethnic diversity vs. ethnic
scarcity and young people vs. older people. He believed that by comparing and contrastic this
criteria he could find a pattern. In Newton (a council estate with a high ethnic minority and
largely youthful population), Edgbaston (a middle class area with few people from ethnic
minorities and a comparatively lower youth population.), Chelmsley Wood (a council estate with
an even lower number of people from ethnic minorities and a large under 16 population.) and
Solihull (which is extremely affluent, has a tiny ethnic minority community and a moderate
youth population) he used unstructured interviews on 200 residents over two and a half years.
He used the information from these studies to outline his theory that distribution of ethnic
minorities and the communities in which they exist are large factors in how people perceive race
relations as well as an area into which those who design race discrimination policies should
look. He found that in Newton, with all it's racial grouping, had a lower level of racism amongst
it's youth. Despite there being some resentment amongst the adult population of Newton, young
white people there, who grew up in the diverse community see their ethnic minority counterparts
as being in the same situation and do not blame them for the societal problems there. the
opposite he found of the almost ethnically scarce Chelmsley where the situation is close to that
of Newton but the youth have not had the chance to integrate with those of different ethnic
origins. In Solihull and Edgbaston there, he found, was almost an air of indifference about
ethnicity and racial tensions, both having only small numbers of those from ethnic minorities.
His comparisons led him to believe that his original hypothesis of there being a
multi-level distribution of attitudes to racism based on class, age and location was correct.
Indeed this is one of the good points to his research as a whole. It is an in depth study, having
used over 800 interviews to glean information from the residents of the area though the time
taken to complete these was over two years. Having used statistics as well as interviews it can
be seen that he was, to a little extent, harking back to the structuralist like of using quantitative
data. Bias is almost inevitable with the interview method and the fact that there was a high level
of racial tension in the area perhaps served to skew the results slightly, a more neutral setting
could have been found but at the same time, using an area such as this might have been
advantageous in highlighting the opinions where racial tensions were high. Due to the fact he
was researching for the ESRC and because of the fact he was looking to influence racial policy
this situation perhaps helped with "worst case scenario" type information.
Another piece of research was done by Mark Bainbridge and his colleagues, who set out
to look at the links between racial attacks and unemployment. They wanted to understand why
racially motivated attacks seemed to have increased and to look at the most often cited cause :
unemployment. They showed a positive correlation between unemployment and attacks using
statistics gathered from national databases but said that due to the variables it would only be
when unemployment fell once more that they would see if the two variables were actually
linked. Bainbridge and his colleagues sought to find ways in which unemployment could lead to
such attacks and found that when unemployment was high people wanted
"a curtailment of immigration and asylum right in the belief that such measures will
ensure the availability of more jobs for the indigenous population"
(Sociology review, Bainbridge et al)
and that many white people believed that black people were taking their jobs even if
statistics etc. showed otherwise. These two beliefs combined with scapegoating the weaker
members of society and the instability of race relations all combined to create a situation in
which those of "different" ethnic backgrounds meant that certain groups were criminalised and
Their study also showed that no other correlations could be found and thus no other
causes were immediately apparent for the increase in the racial attacks.
Using statistics very much inkeeps with the structuralist method of this report and it
does, as is set out to show, prove somewhat of a correlation although the authors themselves
admit that some reasons for this appearing to be the cause may be hidden concluding that
"on present evidence it appears that a fatal combination of unemployment,
poverty, fear and ignorance is promoting a rising tide of racially motivated violence."
(Sociology review, Bainbridge et
As has been shown, there is not only diversity of sociological thought, but a diversity of subjects within the range of race and ethnicity. Such an overwhelming matter within our increasingly globalised world will no doubt be the subject of more sociological study but
Bainbridge et al perhaps are correct in thinking that the matters pertaining to race and ethnicity are multi-level. The study of sociology itself has also been changed by it's delving into this area, with terms and definitions being created as well as a new way of looking at societies and how they are made up.
Haralambos and Holborn, Sociology themes and perspectives, Collins, 2000
Nicholas Abercombie et al, The Contemporary British Society Reader, Polity, 2001
Ellis Cashmore, Who Are The Real Racists, New Society, 13 June 1986
Mark Bainbridge et al, Unemployment and Racially Motivated Vioence, Sociology Review,
http://www-hoover.stanford.edu/publications/he/23/23a.html, Race, Culture, and Equality,