What is a Minority?

  • Minority – a definable category of people who are socially disadvantaged
  • Membership in a minority group has two components: the group lacks social power, and it is definable as being distinct from the majority
  • Majority – a definable category of people who are socially advantaged
  • For sociologists, the defining feature of the majority is that it uses its dominance to control the social system
  • In Canadian society, the dominant group is generally considered to be white males
  • It is not the size of a given group but rather its lack of power that makes it a minority
  • Around the world, minority groups are defined by various cultural and physical characteristics
  • Canadians may think first of language (French or English), Americans of skin color (black or white), and the Northern Irish of religion (Catholic or Protestant)

Race: The Social Construction of Difference

  • Race – historically, a group of people who were physically and genetically distinguished from other groups
  • Since genetic differences do not determine significant behavioral or substantive biological differences, early researchers can be understood to have invented the “myth” of race
  • The assignment of people to have racial categories is a function of social construction
  • Researchers suggest that a person’s race accounts for a tiny 0.24% of his or her genetic makeup
  • There does not appear to be any credible evidence to substantiate the claim that people of different “races” are innately superior or inferior in temperament or in mental or physical abilities
  • Race remains a crucial area of study for sociologists because it is real as a social category and thus affects the lives of all people, whether through the invisible privileges that whiteness carries or the blatant or subtle discrimination that minorities face regularly
  • Sometimes sociologists use the term racialization to describe the process of attributing complex characteristics (e.g., athletic abilities, intelligence) to racial categories.

o   EX: people infer that black people are better athletes than white people

  • A related concept, internalized racism, occurs when members of a racial group assume the attributes associated with that racial classification and internalize them as part of their identities
  • Whenever possible, the term race should be replaced with either minority group or racialized population, since the latter terms de-emphasize biology and accentuate the importance of a group’s socially constructed status and lack of social power

Ethnicity: The Social Construction of Group Identity

  • Ethnicity – a multi-dimensional concept that includes one’s minority or majority status, ancestry, language, and often religious affiliation

o   EX: identifying with your family’s Greek, Chinese, or German heritage and customs is part of your ethnicity and helps to define your self-concept

  • Ethnic group – a collection of people who identify with each other and share a common culture, art forms, language, music, traditions, and beliefs
  • Research confirms that with each subsequent generation, the immigration population becomes more like the dominant culture

Prejudice, Racism, and Discrimination

  • A prejudgement: a negative assessment about what a person or group is like before you actually meet them
  • Is irrational, long lasting, and not based on facts
  • Ecological fallacy – drawing conclusions about individual attributes from data gathered from an entire group

o   EX: all white people are hard working; all Asian people are good at math

  • Exception fallacy – drawing conclusions about an entire group based on observations of individuals

o   EX: if one black person is good at math, not all black people will be just as good at math

  • Stereotypes – a stable and sweeping generalization about a category of people


  • An ideology that maintains that one race is inherently superior to another
  • Sociologists view racism as an ideology that justifies treating people differently because of their racial category
  • By defining others as inferior, the majority group reinforces its own collective identity and sense of superiority
  • Democratic racism – a system that advocated equality but in fact perpetuates minority differentiation and oppression

o   “we’re all just people”


  • Occurs when a person or group either denies or grants advantages to members of a particular group
  • Sociologists also acknowledge that discrimination is not a single entity but instead operates on a number of levels in society
  • Sociologists understand that discrimination exists on various levels, and can be classified as:


Occurs when an individual advantages or disadvantages another because of that person’s group membership. EX: deciding not to hire a tutor for your sociology class because she is Italian.

Direct institutional: Occurs when an institution employs policies or practices that are discriminatory against a person or group (EX: Canada’s residential school system)

Indirect institutional: Occurs when an action produces uneven results on a group or a person because of an unlawful criterion, but lacks the intent of being discriminatory. EX: the weight or size requirement to become a police officer or firefighter

Explaining Prejudice and Discrimination

  • Scapegoat Theory

The assertion that prejudice and discrimination originate in the frustrations of people who want to blame someone else for their problems

  • Authoritarian Personality Theory

o   Extreme prejudice is a personality trait linked to people who believe strongly in following cultural norms, traditions, and values

o   Theodor Adorno

§  His research found that people who show strong negative reactions toward one minority group generally feel negatively about all minorities

o   Frankfort School – a group of German social philosophers dedicated to understanding the role of culture and mass communication in the Nazi regime

o   F-test – (f standing for fascist) Adorno’s assessment tool to determine a person’s personality and likelihood of holding prejudical attitudes

Socio-Cultural Theories

  • Culture Theory

o   Suggest that some prejudice is found in people all over the world; it is part of culture

o   Emory Bogardus

o   Social distance – Bogardus’ concept of the relative distance people feel between themselves and other racial/ethnic groups

o   Culture of prejudice – a value system that promotes prejudice, discrimination, and oppression

Functionalist Theory: By identifying an individual, group, race, or nation as “other,” the dominant groups in society are able to come together and confront the common enemy. Racist ideologies and the prejudice and discrimination that they breed often promote social stability. Discrimination prevents a society from maximizing the benefits of diversity and the abilities of all of its citizens, while at the same time running the risk of increasing social problems such as poverty and crime

Conflict Theory

  • Dual Labour Market Theory

o   Two labour markets exist:

  • primary labour market that includes secure long-term jobs with good benefits
  • secondary labour market that includes low-paying, insecure jobs with no benefits

o   Separation of markets allows the dominant group to maintain control

  • Marxist Exploitation Theory

o   The small economic elite promote prejudice to divide workers and maintain their rule’ this results in oppression and domination of all workers

  • Critical Race Theory

o   Race remains a significant factor in determining inequity in modern society

o   Status is largely based on property rights, and the intersection of race and property creates and analytical tool by which scholars can begin to understand social inequality

  • Symbolic Interactionist Theory

o   Believe that a person’s attitudes and perceptions about minority groups are not innate, but rather learned as a required component of culture or an expression of class conflict

o   Believes that because prejudice is learned, it can be unlearned

o   Selective perception – the process whereby people see only those things that reinforce their preconceived perceptions

o   Contact hypothesis – the proposal that prejudiced attitudes can decline with intergroup contact

  • Multiracial Feminist Theory

o   Approach provides a framework for examining the historical, cultural, racial, and economic differences between racial groups and offers a new perspective for women of colour who may feel alienated from traditional white feminism

o   Theorists argue that domination and oppression are not simply the result of one’s race, gender, or class, but the outcome of an entire system of inequality that diminishes both women and men

  • Post-Colonial Theory

o   Examines the ways in which the colonial past has shaped the social, political, and economic experiences of a colonized country

o   Integrates an analysis of both the past and the present to help to understand the effects of the historical legacy of the colonial experience and its impact on social institutions and structures as well as the formation of people’s identities

The Five Categories of Minority Relations


  • The intentional extermination of all members of a minority group
  • Most likely to occur when three conditions are met: (1) the dominant group is much larger than the minority, (2) the minority is of little or no economic value to the dominant group, and (3) the dominant group needs a scapegoat to blame for economic or military setbacks

Expulsion or Population Transfer

  • Sometimes, under the same circumstances that can lead to genocide, the dominant groups force a minority to leave the country or confine them to a particular location
  • The decision to expel or transfer the minority rather than to exterminate them is partly due to a mix of morality and political practicality, but the goal is essentially the same: to remove the minority group from society

Segregation and Separatism

  • Segregation – the formal physical or social separation of dominant or minority groups
  • Separatism – (ethical nationalism) occurs when minority groups believe that the dominant group will never allow them to assimilate or to exist within a truly pluralistic society


  • A one-way process that occurs when a minority group shed its differences and assumes the traits of the dominant group
  • This transition is made easier when five conditions are met:

o   Members of the minority group migrated to the area voluntarily

o   Members of the minority group arrived during a period of economic prosperity

o   Members of the minority group are physically similar to the dominant group

o   The minority group is culturally similar to the dominant group

o   The number of members in the minority group is relatively small

Cultural Pluralism or Multiculturalism

  • The retention of minority groups’ cultural identities and the promotion of cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity by the larger society
  • Melting pot – the blending of new immigrants’ traditions into the dominant American culture

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