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categories in their conceptualizations, albeit in

relatively minor ways.

Theories that treat race and/or ethnicity as

primordial phenomena conceive of the categories

as essential qualities intrinsic to the nature of

specific human groups. These qualities can take

race and ethnicity race and ethnicity


several forms: biological traits, psychological complexes,

or a combination of the two. Primordial

theories often share the notion that race and ethnicity

will persist as significant variables in the

structuring of society because the conditions that

first gave rise to group distinctions are rooted in

nature or otherwise quite stable. Against the

conventional sociological wisdom that race and

ethnicity are socially constructed phenomena,

these theories understand the phenomena as qualities

that were always there or that naturally

evolved out of preexisting physical conditions.

Studies of cranial capacity or body type as socially

meaningful distinctions between human groups,

for example, represent early incarnations of

this approach. These (failed) attempts to locate

scientifically fixed boundaries between naturally

occurring racial groups eventually spawned studies

that rooted racial difference in hardwired

social responses to biological differences, if not

in the differences themselves.

For example, in “The Significance of Skin Color

in Human Relations” in J. Franklin’s Color and Race

(1968), Kenneth Gergen roots ethnocentrism in the

primordial love of self. This instinctual love, he

argues, leads to the attraction to and favoring of

others who resemble the self. He proposes that the

popular association of blackness with negativity is

the result of associative learning and color symbolism

– particularly for groups who experience

darker skin as distinct from their own. The universal

phenomenon of day and night, he argues, provides

the proverbial model for the symbolic

meanings of white and black that permeate

many languages around the globe. That is, a child

soon learns to associate day with nurturing and

care and to associate night with neglect and

hunger. These associations, it follows, are internalized

and carry over into later life in the form of a

color symbolism that influences how phenotypically

similar and distinct groups are perceived and


In a more complex variation of the primordial

approach, Pierre Van den Berghe’s The Ethnic Phenomenon

(1987) synthesizes elements of earlier,

Darwin-inspired biological approaches and later

sociological and psychological approaches. The

primordial goal of fitness, Van den Berghe argues,

leads to three different strategies for genetic adaptation:

kin selection, reciprocity, and coercion. Ethnicity

is defined as an extension of kinship, and

racism is the product of the widespread practice of

nepotism between kinsmen. The study analyzes

human behavior at three interrelated levels: the

genetic, the ecological, and the cultural. In the

end, it presents ethnicity as a phenomenon that is

both primordial and situational.

While the previous approach to race and ethnicity

roots the phenomena in relatively stable,

primordial conditions, another more influential

approach holds that economic relations constitute

the primal force in society, and that race and

ethnicity are mere artifacts of these more basic

human relations. For these studies, the form of

economic relations – preindustrial versus industrial

or postindustrial modes of production – is

critical because it determines the pattern of racial

and/or ethnic relations. Theories characteristic of

this approach often postulate that, as economic

relations become more advanced, racial and

ethnic solidarities will decrease in significance

and eventually give way to class solidarities.

In Caste, Class and Race (1970), for example, Oliver

C. Cox conceptualized race as a modern phenomenon,

historically rooted in the genesis of world

capitalism. His model essentially argued the

following: the labor requirements of capitalism

sparked a drive to proletarianize the masses;

slavery was seen as the ideal mechanism for labor

manipulation, and appeals to ethnocentrism were

used to legitimate the arrangement; when the

efficiency of this system began to falter, capitalists

used the same ethnocentrism to divide and conquer

the “free” workforce, creating, in the process,

racial antagonisms. In short, racial conflict, for

Cox, amounted to masked class conflict – conflict

that promotes the interests of the capitalist class.

Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

(1982) echoed this Marx-inspired interpretation of

race. Here, of course, the focus was on establishing

the links between white racism, the worldwide

expansion of capitalism and colonization, and

the concomitant decline in the standard of living

throughout Africa relative to the conditions in

colonizing nations.

In “A Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split

Labor Market” (1972, American Sociological Review),

Edna Bonacich focuses on ethnicity rather than

race because the former is viewed as the more

general category. Like Cox’s theory, this theory

identifies economic relations as the basis for interethnic

relations. But unlike Cox and other orthodox

Marxist approaches to race and ethnicity,

Bonacich’s split-labor market model does not

single out the capitalist class as the promoter of

ethnic divisions and antagonisms. Instead, the

workers themselves foment ethnic divisions and

antagonisms as they pursue their own narrow

economic interests. Bonacich contends that a

split-labor market is created when higher-paid

race and ethnicity race and ethnicity


labor is able to protect its privileged status in the

market by monopolizing access to key resources. A

common manifestation of this development consists

of the banding together of higher-paid labor –

usually along ethnic lines – into guilds and other

associations, blocking the access of out-groups to

education and job skills, thereby lessening the

threat that these groups could compete for the

same privileged jobs in the labor market. All

things being equal, the argument goes, higherpaid

labor would become relatively scarce,

allowing it to demand of employers higher wages

than possible if other groups had equal qualifications

and skills. It is this exclusion of subordinate

groups from labor guilds and associations – combined

with the threat of subordinate group

members as cheaper, replacement labor (or even

as strikebreakers) – that fuels ethnic antagonism.

In many respects, William Julius Wilson’s The

Declining Significance of Race: Black and Changing

American Institutions (1978) advances a model of

race relations that synthesizes key tenets of contemporary

Marxian studies like those discussed

above with ideas inspiring culture-based studies

like those discussed below. Wilson uses American

census data and other evidence to argue that the

historical period determines the system of production,

which leads to specific patterns of

inter-group relations (for example, race relations).

These relations, in turn, lead to legitimating

norms and stereotypes that reinforce the racial

order through cultural means. Wilson divides the

history of the United States into three distinct

epochs of production: preindustrial, industrial,

and postindustrial. The preindustrial epoch, he

argues, was one in which black–white relations

were essentially relations between master and

slave. Wilson refers to this as an era of symbiosis

and paternalism, when the planter class exploited

slave labor while protecting their captive labor

force against the threat of displaced Southern

workers. The emergence of the industrial epoch,

however, sealed the doom of this “peculiar institution,”

leading to a transformation in race

relations. In this emergent period, former slaves

were perceived by white workers as potential competitors

for the industry jobs that were growing

in importance. This perceived threat, Wilson

suggests – and the absence of planter-class protection

for the former slaves – led to increases in antiblack

racial ideology, Jim Crow legislation, and,

ultimately, a split-labor market where blacks

occupied the bottom realm. In this period,

though, race was still more important than social

class in the structuring of society. But in the

postindustrial era, Wilson argues, the role of the

polity increased relative to that of the market in

the structuring of society, leading to increased

racial equality and an environment where class

is more important than race in the shaping of

life chances.

While approaches that treat race and ethnicity

as cultural phenomena often give great importance

to economic relations between groups, these

approaches are distinctive in the centrality they

attribute to the relative autonomy of ideas, of

ways of life, and of experiences, in the shaping of

social relations. This grouping of approaches

might itself be broken into two subgroups: works

that treat race and/or ethnicity as static concepts

and those that treat them as dynamic concepts.

Static approaches are more characteristic of

earlier works in the field, works that tend to

define categories from the perspective of the analyst

and impose the meaning of these categories

backwards in time to the relations under study.

In contrast, dynamic approaches are usually

more recent in origin and attempt to derive

meaning from the context of the relations under

study, ultimately conceiving of race and ethnicity

as fluid phenomena whose connotations change

over time within a given context. In an ironic way,

perhaps, dynamic-culture studies often employ

Durkheimian concepts to argue – contrary to

Durkheim himself – that race and ethnicity are

likely to persist as meaningful social phenomena.

Robert Ezra Park, Gunnar Myrdal, and E. Franklin

Frazier are important, early representatives of

the static-culture approach. In Race and Culture

(1950), Park’s race-relations cycle proposed that as

racial and ethnic groups come into contact with

the dominant American culture, three stages of

interaction would necessarily ensue: competition,

accommodation, and assimilation. Frazier’s The

Negro in the United States (1957) also conceptualized

race relations as an evolutionary process. The process

of integrating Negroes into American society,

he argued, is represented by a sequential gradient,

with assimilation coming first in sectors of secondary

(secular) rather than primary (sacred) contact.

Similarly, Myrdal’s massive study of American race

relations, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem

and American Democracy (1944), underscored the

importance of cultural factors that might be

managed over time – in this case, the attitudes

that white Americans held about blacks. Despite

his acknowledgment that white Americans held

virtually all economic, social, and political power

in society, he argued that the “Negro problem” in

the United States could be resolved simply by

race and ethnicity race and ethnicity


bringing the attitudes of whites in line with an

“American Creed” of democracy and basic equality.

This cultural achievement, he concluded, would

go a long way towards breaking the chain of

cumulative causation in American race relations –

the vicious cycle by which disadvantage begets

more disadvantage for blacks, further dividing

the races in the United States. In the end, each of

these works is of the static-culture variety because

they treat the content of racial categories as a

given, something either to be assimilated in a

one-way, transhistorical process or to be tolerated

by the broader, mainstream culture. None of the

works endeavors to theorize changes in the meaning

of race and/or ethnicity as relations between

groups progress.

By contrast, in Racial Formation in the United

States from the 1960s to the 1990s (1994), Michael

Omi and Howard Winant posit a racial-formation

model that exemplifies the fluid-culture approach.

This work conceptualizes race as a social

and historical concept whose meaning changes

relative to specific social relations embedded

within specific historical and geographic contexts.

Economic and political forces matter, the

argument goes, but primarily in terms of how

each shapes the social meaning of existing racial

categories. Indeed, racial categories are understood

to be in a perpetual process of formation

(that is, creation, destruction, and realignment),

composed at any given point in time of commonsense

etiquette, ideologies, and representations.

The theory conceives of racial projects (for

example, colonization, slavery, or anti-racism) as

the building blocks of racial formation; these

links between the cultural realm of ideas and

the material simultaneously provide commonsense

explanations for prevailing racial dynamics

and support efforts to (re)distribute resources

along racial lines. The racial state, which is composed

of countless institutions infused with racebased

assumptions and policies, regularly intervenes

to stabilize contemporary racial dynamics.

At base, racial formation theory is heavily influenced

by Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony.

Accordingly, the theory conceives of the racial

order at any given moment as an unstable equilibrium

fashioned by interaction between

the racial state, interest groups, and organic consciousness.

It conceives of race as distinct from

ethnicity in that the former is read off human

bodies (which are less malleable than cultural

characteristics) for the purposes of grounding

social identities, maintaining social boundaries,

and protecting social privilege. The theory thus

presents race as a relatively permanent, central

axis of social relations that cuts across class lines.

Indeed, it understands racial dynamics as determinants

of class relationships, not – as the economic

approaches argue – the other way around.

Echoing Omi and Winant’s focus on the role

meanings play in the trajectory of racial dynamics,

a recent body of scholarship on race and

ethnicity has emerged, which is rooted in the

cultural studies tradition. A key figure associated

with this movement is Stuart Hall, whose empirical

studies and theoretical writings have underscored

the increasingly important role played by

media in racial formation processes. Hall conceives

of race as a “floating signifier,” as a discursive

category that links the otherwise random

physical characteristics that we read from human

bodies with important social assumptions,

expectations, and outcomes. Indeed, Hall argues

that the political function of race as a signifier

is to establish a system of equivalences that

allows social actors to read culture (that is character,

capabilities, and so forth) from nature (that

is, the body), thereby naturalizing and fixing differences

that are actually socially constructed

and fluid. The formation of “black” and “white”

races as a binary opposition represents the

quintessential expression of this process, as the

perceived location of each racial group at an

opposing end of the meaning spectrum, by

default, anchors the meaning of the other. That

is, what is “black” is “not white,” and what is

“white” is “not black.” Floating (or fluid) signifiers

associated with “black” and “white” bodies,

Hall argues, resonate with an important system

of equivalences that continues to shape racial

politics in many societies:

white ¼ European ¼ civilized ¼ rational ¼

superior ¼ free ¼ good


black ¼ African ¼ savage ¼ emotional ¼ inferior

¼ slave ¼ bad

These basic equations have worked to reinforce

systematically at the level of ideology, the relative

positioning of persons considered “black” and

“white” throughout a number of societies around

the globe, including the United States and the

United Kingdom. Hall’s studies of news, motion

pictures, and other media – as well as several

other important media studies inspired by his

work – interrogate how these equivalences reinforce

racial commonsense and stereotypes. Collectively,

these studies trace the cultural processes

by which popular ideas contribute to a reproduction

of racial inequality.

race and ethnicity race and ethnicity


Contrary to sociological theories that reduce

race and ethnicity to other social phenomena, or

that predict they will either decline in significance

or eventually disappear as meaningful

social categories, race and ethnicity continue to

shape societal and global relations in profound

ways. This is because race and ethnicity have

taken root in cultures around the world and exert

their force, on a regular basis, as irresistible social

representations. To be sure, these naturalized

mental frameworks have ordered and continue

to order the way social actors see the world before

them. In the case of race, people notice otherwise

arbitrary differences on the surface of the human

body and imbue these differences with social

meanings. These meanings, in turn, reinforce the

significance of the otherwise nonessential social

construction, giving it a rather objective weight.

In many societies, race is a fundamental component

of social actors’ ongoing efforts to establish

who they are, who they are not, and who they

hope to be. Social actors in these societies regularly

affirm and police the boundaries of race, in

their own little ways, as a means of bringing necessary

order to their social experiences. In other

societies, ethnicity might be more salient in these

meaning-making processes.

But meaning-making processes related to race

and ethnicity ultimately involve much more than

just attitudes about in-groups and out-groups.

Race and ethnicity are also about group resources,

about group security, and about group

power. As commonsense ideology, race and

ethnicity have been exploited by elites as a

potent means either for masking their own

privilege or for naturalizing their group’s dominant

position in society (and, by extension,

their own personal privilege). At the same time,

however, subordinate groups have relied upon

race and/or ethnicity in order to mobilize participants

into oppositional, identity-based movements

for social change. These observations

reveal the fundamental social utility of race and

ethnicity, while echoing their many contradictions.

Whether it is the ethnic cleansing of non-

Serbians in Bosnia, movements to institute affirmative

action protection for blacks in Brazil,

or anti-immigrant sentiments in the United

States, contemporary events around the globe

underscore both the complexity of race and ethnicity

and the sense of urgency surrounding race

and ethnic relations. As long as there is conflict

in the world, it appears, race and ethnicity will

serve as important axes of group antagonism.


race relations

– see race and ethnicity.

racial discrimination

– see race and ethnicity.

racial orders

– see race and ethnicity.


As distinct from prejudice, a psychological attitude,

racism is an enduring, salient aspect of social

and global structures. It is based on demonstrably

false theories of racial differences appropriated

by a culture in order to deny or unjustly distribute

social privileges, economic opportunities, and

political rights to the racially stigmatized groups.

Racism, thus, structures social differences, power,

and culture, as when, according to George

Fredrickson, “one ethnic group or historical collectivity

dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate

another on the basis of differences that it

believes are hereditary and unalterable” (Racism,


Historically, the concept came into use late in

the modern era, principally in reference to the

Nazi program for the elimination of Jewish people

and to the segregation of blacks in South Africa

and the United States. Racism stops short of genocide

when the dominant classes depend on the

labor power of the segregated. In recent international

discussions, for example at the World

Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination,

Xenophobia, and Related Intolerances in

2001 in Durban, South Africa, it has become increasingly

clear that “racism” often includes

extra-racial factors. In sociology, where the distinction

between race and ethnicity is uncertain,

it is best to limit “racism” to structures in which

race is explicitly used to effect social domination.

The foundations of racial domination were laid in

the sixteenth-century slave trade and Euro-American

colonization. Racism, thereby, applies most

accurately to structures historically dominated

by the European diaspora. The expression “reverse

racism” is thus ironic. There is no scientific evidence

that race is a meaningful way to identify

social or biological differences. CHARLES LEMERT

radical feminism

– see feminism.

random sampling

– see sampling.

race and ethnicity random sampling


rational choice theory

In sociology, theories based on rational choice

assumptions borrow many of their core ideas from

the Scottish moralists (classical economics) as the

ideas have been recast in neo-classical economics,

game theory, and efforts by economists to sort out

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