Sociology 211

September 15-17, 2004


Ethnicity, race, and minority


There are a number of terms commonly used in dealing with ethnicity and ethnic relations.  Each of these is similar but has a somewhat different set of meanings that are worthwhile considering.  Some of these are:

·        Ethnic group

·        Race or racial group / racism

·        Minority group / visible minority

·        Folk / people

·        Nation and nationality / nation-state

·        National minority

At least some of these distinctions are politically important, in that a group may view itself as a nation, and wish to have separate political governance, possibly even a state.  Many Quebecois say they constitute a nation and would like to have their own state.  Similarly, many aboriginal people consider themselves as nations, or national minorities, and while they are not generally made political demands for a separate nation-state, they have obtained a degree or self-government, and many may wish more self-government.  Members of ethnic or racial groups, may also consider it necessary to have their culture or situation recognized, even where they are clearly not nations or national minorities.  This may emerge because the group was mistreated in the past, so there are political demands for equitable treatment.  Or the political issue may be associated with protection of language or cultures.  Alternatively, it may be protection of some characteristic that is important to them, such as ability to observe the sabbath (Jews) or other ceremonial or religious observances. 


Undoubtedly there are many more terms such as tribe and horde, terms less commonly used today.  Related concepts are group, community and imagined community, culture (including national culture or total culture), power, and religion – concepts that form part of the definition of some of the above.


From a sociological point of view, the difference among these may be approached by considering the meaning of group, community, and culture, and the different ways the collectivity thinks of itself and how others relate to the collectivity in question. 


Group.  In sociological terms, groups are to be distinguished from collections of people , such as categorizations and classifications, aggregates, crowds, organizations, or even social classes.  Members of each of the latter may have many similarities with each other, and any such collection of people may form the basis for a group.  But what is missing from each of these collections is the social interaction and social relationships that distinguish a group and form the basis for its ongoing existence and influence on its members. 

A group carries with it the notion of interaction among group members.  One example of sociological definitions of groups is as follows: 

Social groups are collectivities of individuals who interact and form social relationships. ... They have their own norms of conduct and are solidaristic.  Within this category may be included the family, groups of friends and many work groups. (Theodorson, pp. 97-98). 

Another approach is to consider groups as collectivities of people with the following characteristics:

(i) an ongoing and independent reality, with individuals coming and going but the group remaining active; (ii) where the group has an effect on the attitude of members, and vice versa, socializing new members; and  (iii) there will be some difference of opinion among group members.  (from Burkey, pp. 9-12). 


Examples of groups could be peer or friendship groups, status groups based on common styles of life, work or occupational groupings, neighbourhood groups, groups based on sexual orientation, or networks of males or females built around some common aspect of their lives.  Some of these could be considered more group-like or stronger groups, depending on the extent, forms, and strength of the social relationship and the effect of the group on its members.


For any collection of people to be considered a group though, there needs to be some existence of the group independent of individuals, members must feel part of the group, and the group must have some effect on members attitudes, views, or behaviour.  A group is not just a collection of people, but must be associated with some ongoing social interaction among individuals that is significant for members of the group.   That is, individuals must consider the actions of others in the group, respond to these in a meaningful way, have some idea of what is a proper  form of interaction in the group, and consider and anticipate how others will respond to you.  These are essential aspects of social interaction in any group setting. 


Members of a group develop a sense of common situation, experiences, interaction, and norms, so they feel part of the group.  This may be a community, in the sense that the individuals are not just individuals but identify with and feel part of the group, and regularly interact with other members of the group.  Benedict Anderson suggests that “a deep, horizontal comradeship” is part of community (Anderson, 1991, p. 7).  An interesting way of expressing the idea of community is that of Diner, who discusses food and ethnicity.  She states,

Preparing and consuming food together solidifies social bonds within families, between households, and among individuals who consider themselves friends.  The notion of the common table connecting people exists in many cultures as an embodiment of communal trust.  We might define a community as a group of people who eat with each other.  (Diner, 2001, p.4). 

She also notes how there are differences in food consumption patterns within each society, and members of each community may consume different foods at different times, so patterns are not identical for each individual.  But her argument is that one way to look at the meaning of community is to consider how human social interaction is organized in the area of food preparation and consumption.


The identity of individuals may be tied up in the group, they may be willing to lay aside personal goals for group goals, and act in the interests of the group.  In this case, there may be common interests for the community or group and the community may set standards for membership. 


Social honour or esteem.   For the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), practically any characteristic could form the basis for a group, but a key is what he terms “honour” or “status honour.”  These are social valuations of others, both positive and negative.  Social honour or esteem could be associated with ethnicity, religion, styles of life, work networks, or friendship groups. 


Weber identifies the following as characteristics of a group, or status group, one example of which is an ethnic group.

one’s conception of what is correct and proper and, above all, of what affects the individual’s sense of honour and dignity.  All those thing we shall find later as objects of specific difference between status groups.  The conviction of the excellence of one’s customs and the inferiority of alien ones, a conviction which sustains the sense of ethnic honour, is actually quite analogous to the sense of honour of distinctive status groups.  (Weber, p. 391).

Closure.  Weber also discussed closure of the group.  Those accorded status honour or esteem are members of the group, those not accorded these are excluded.  Thus boundaries and closure become key aspects of group identification.  While Peter Li is critical of this as the main approach to a study of ethnicity, he says that, in this Weberian approach,

ethnic identity provides a basis for members to develop closures … or boundaries, within which ethnic institutions, neighbourhoods, beliefs, and cultures are developed and maintained.  To the extent that an ethnic identity is accepted by outsiders of the group, it becomes a convenient label for members of the group to distinguish themselves, and for others to distinguish them.  (Li, 1988, p. 22).

Recall Isajiw’s  (p. 19) definition of ethnic group and boundaries:

an involuntary, community-type group of persons who share the same distinct culture or who are descendants of those who have shared a distinct culture and who identify with their ancestors, or their culture or group. 

a boundary from within, established by the socialization process and maintained by ethnic institutions, and a boundary from without, established by the process of intergroup relations.

Status honour and esteem, and social evaluations of these, should help in defining what Isajiw refers to as the inner boundary of any ethnic group.  Considerations of ancestry, socialization, norms, culture, language, institutions, meaningful symbols, and leadership, all could lend themselves to such considerations.  Those who accept some or all of these aspects associated with a group, or can lay claim to them or practice them, are accorded social honour, while others are excluded.  This then forms one aspect of an ethnic group – the existence of the group is related to social interaction and the social honour or esteem associated with the group.  As a result, the group has an independent, ongoing existence.  It is not just a classification of people with common ancestry, language, or customs, but is social in that it has meaning for the members, members identify with it, and members recognize some as part of the group while nonmembers are outside the boundaries of the group. 


Boundary from without.  The boundary from without may be just as important, or perhaps more important, in the case of group formation.  The forms and structures of relationships with others who are outside the group may help define the group.  We will see this is especially the case for race, where external identification is the main aspect of group relationships.  But even with ethnic groups, the manner that those outside the group treat members may be a defining characteristic. 


With Jewish people in Germany, this certainly became the defining characteristic and one that affected the fate of the Jews.  While there was a well-established Jewish culture and ethnicity or peoplehood that preceded this, the meaning of being Jewish changed with the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany.  While Jewish people had previously been subject to discrimination, they also had a way of life and ongoing existence within these societies.  But this way of life was destroyed and their new fate, as refugees or to the camps, was constructed externally, by those who attempted to eliminate Jewish people from Germany and other European countries.  This is an extreme example, but illustrative of the manner that the boundary from without can clearly define a group and affect the future of the group.  (see Abella and Troper, p. 3).


The University of Saskatchewan sociologist, Peter Li, approaches this in a manner similar as Isajiw, but places more emphasis on the external boundaries and the manner in which immigrant or ethnic groups are viewed and treated by others.  He argues that rather than ethnicity being a set of pre-existing characteristics of a group, ethnicity is much more a result of inequality and power relationships among groups.  He states,

Another approach to race and ethnicity is to examine them as consequences of unequal relationships, produced and maintained by differential power between a dominant and a subordinate group.  According to this view, racial and ethnic groups are constructed on the basis of social relationships and are not based on genetic factors or primordial features.  The focus is on the institutional framework within which groups are defined as racial or ethnic and how social interactions are organized accordingly. (Li, 1998, p. 23).

As one argument for this approach, he says “there is no reason to believe that people of the same ethnic label necessarily come from a uniform culture” (Li, 1998, p. 28).  He argues that there are dramatic cultural differences within each so-called ethnic group, perhaps greater differences within the group than between different ethnic groups.  Examples of this include African-Americans in the United States – originally slaves from many different parts of Africa, they were placed in similar conditions in the United States, leading to white people considering them as a common group and treating them in a similar manner.


Li argues this approach is especially useful with discussing immigrants to Canada, since immigration is selective and may have been the result of economic or political dislocation in the country of origin.  In Canada, immigrants have often been placed in a particular set of jobs or niche, thus leading long-time Canadians to consider this job or niche occupied by the immigrants as an essential aspect of their culture.  While there may be a common language and religion among these immigrant ethnic groups, they may differ greatly among themselves, so they may not form a community or ethnic group in the sense discussed above.  Examples might be migrant workers in agricultural employment or female domestic workers from various Caribbean regions. 


In a more recent book, Li argues that the shift in types of immigration (from Europe in earlier years to Asian, Latin America, Africa, Middle East since the 1960s) has led long-time Canadians of European origin to identify immigrants as “newcomers from a different racial and cultural background.”  (Li, 2003, p. 44).  In his view, this has created what some term an “immigration problem” (p. 46) so the

meaning of immigrants assumes a negative connotation that applies mainly to non-white newcomers who are seen as altering the racial composition of immigration, and in turn, changing the racial composition of a traditional Canada.  (p. 46).

Ethnic groups.   In summary, we have discussed three interconnected approaches to ethnicity.  One is a checklist of characteristics of a set of people who regard themselves, or are considered to have, a common ancestry.  While this is a useful approach, Isajiw’s view of ethnicity involves social interaction and social relationships among an ancestral group, so there is a distinct shared culture.  But this is only partially created on the basis of tradition and pre-existing culture, it is also created by others, depending on the place of the group in society and the relationships with other groups.  Li emphasizes the latter approach.


Race.  The latter considerations, related to view and treatment of others is even more true for those considered to be of a different race.  Isajiw (p. 21) notes how race is constructed by outsiders, who identify the race of a group of people by some physical characteristic.  Such classification is usually based loosely on skin colour, although there is great variety in skin colour and other physical characteristics of individuals who are considered to be part of a race. 


In the past, most identification of individuals by race used fairly obvious external physical characteristics “such as skin colour, eye colour, nose shape, hair type, lip shape, cheek bone, body hair” (from Isajiw, p. 21).  Various scientists attempted to classify humans into different races, using such characteristics.  The most commonly used division is probably that of white, black, and yellow – Caucasians, Negroid, and Mongoloid.  But there have been many other attempts to classify people by race – Isajiw (p. 21) cites a nine-fold geographical classification of races – Amerindian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Melanesian, Australian, Asian, Indian, European, and African.  Within each of these groups, further distinctions have been made, for example in the United States in the nineteenth century it was not uncommon to refer to Anglo-Saxon, Celt, Hebrew (Jewish), Slav, Alpine, Mediterranean, and Nordic as races or as racial subgroups, each with some common physical features (see Jacobson, p. 6).


Other physical characteristics have also been used to attempt to classify individuals by race.  In the nineteenth century, scientists attempted to show that brain or head sizes differed systematically by race.  Early in the twentieth century, intelligence became the focus of such studies, with IQ measurements purportedly showing that those of Anglo-Saxon or northern European background had the highest IQ, with those from eastern or southern Europe had lower IQ. . 


Philippe Rushton, the University of Western Ontario psychologist who has become the bad boy of Canadian academe, believes there is something biologically real about race, that races have different sized brains and genitalia, an that these biological differences have important social and behavioural consequences.”  (Satzewich, 1998, p. 31).  While many would dispute his contentions, from the material attributed to him on various web sites, he still argues that race is a scientific concept, that explains differences individual development and helps explain social variables – see “J. Philippe Rushton: Race as a Biological Concept.”  Some scientists using a seemingly more scientific method of genetics, have argued that there are combinations of genes that occur with different frequencies among those of different races.  See also, p. 24 on the “bell curve.”


Such forms of classification are often used to argue that human behaviour, intelligence, sexual activity, physical abilities, and other social characteristics are associated with race.  Others take this even further to argue that some races are superior to others.  In North America, those who have made this argument usually conclude that it is western Europeans or Caucasians who are the superior race. 


While there are obviously many physical differences among individuals, whether there are any systematic differences by race, genetics, or some other characteristics is less clear.  There is much variation within each group, and overlap among groups, that attempts to classify by physical differences do not produce clear-cut results.  Whether any such differences are associated with social and cultural differences is even less clear.  Isajiw argues there is no evidence for one racial group to be superior to any other (pp. 21-22).  Undoubtedly debates over whether racial classification is possible or useful will continue, but it is difficult to see the usefulness of such attempts.


Isajiw’s basic argument about race is that it is an individual characteristic, not a characteristic of people in common.  There are undoubtedly some cultural similarities among people that others identify as members of a particular race. But there are many differences among members of each race as well.  If members of a particular race have lived together for extended periods of time, speaking a common language and developing a common culture, then it would seem it is the latter that is key in distinguishing these individuals as a group.  In general though, individuals of one of the races do not have a common culture, so the designation of race must be externally imposed by those not of that race.  What they are more likely to have in common is a culture, and that is what needs to be examined and analyzed.


Sociologists today often argue that race is a social construction or “a constructed social phenomenon” (Isajiw, p. 22).  One way to consider this is to examine the meaning of what “white” or “Caucasian” means and how the meaning of this has changed over the last two hundred years.  There is strong historical evidence that the definition of what it means to be white in North America is an historical and social construction.  Originally, most immigrants from Europe were English or Scottish, and these gradually became the standard for what came to be considered as white.  Those of Germanic or Nordic background were also regarded as white, while there was some question about those of eastern and southern European background – they tended to look somewhat different, some tended to be bit darker than western and northern Europeans, and certainly had different customs and culture. 


In particular, the Irish were originally not regarded as white.  Many nineteenth century images portrayed the Irish as more similar to Negroes than to Anglo-Saxon.  Notice the three images of “scientific racism,” and the dark colour of the Irishman “homeward bound.”  Such images of the Irish were common in the media in the middle to late nineteenth century.  The Irish were originally at the bottom end of the social ladder in the northeast of the United States, in poverty and confined to heavy, dirty, and undesirably manual labour.  They gradually began to assimilate or integrate and came to be considered as white.  The partially whitened image of the Irish bogtrotter shows this aspect, and by the middle twentieth century, it became possible for an individual of Irish background to become President of the United States (Kennedy).  A similar history can be traced for other groups – see Jacobson, 1998.   See following links to obtain these images.


Links to images


Some images of Irish in the United States are available in a paper by Kevin Kenny, “Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study.”  Available at


The exhibition Image and Caricature, organized by the Michigan State University Museum contains thirty-two images illustrating “the role of caricature and stereotype in the multicultural development of the United States.”  Available at web site:


Some caricatures of Irish immigrants are available at web site:


The caricature “The Ignorant Vote,” along with other images of the artist Thomas Nast, are available at web site:



What is meant by race as a social construction is race has a certain reality in social life, in that some people treat an individual’s race as a socially significant factor in social interaction.  For example, some landlords may not rent an apartment to a family considered as part of the “Negroid” race, or some employers may not offer jobs to those considered of that race.  Race may be a basis for favourable treatment – if someone looks or is considered to be white or oriental, they may be given favourable treatment.  As a result, race has real social consequences for the manner individuals are thought of and considered.  If this is the case, then race has real consequences for the experiences and lives of people.  While race might not have a solid scientific or biological foundation, to the extent that individuals treat race as real, then it has social meaning and social consequences.  As such it has to be addressed in an analysis of ethnicity and multiculturalism.


Isajiw concludes his short section on race (pp. 21-23) by stating that he regards race as a “categorical classification and the term racial groups will be used in the sense of racial categories” (p. 22).  Since racial categorization has real social consequences, racism has to be addressed as an issue.  Isajiw later defines racism as “an ideology based on the idea of the superiority of one racial category or one ethnic group to other racial categories or ethnic groups” (p. 149) and as systematic prejudice against other groups (p. 144).  We will return to these issues when discussing prejudice and racism, later in the semester.


Isajiw classifies and anlyzes different types of ethnic and racial groups, using a five-fold typology (p. 23):

·        Characteristics not biologically inherent, but acquired through historical experience.

·        Ideal-type classification – that is, the types may not conform exactly with particular individuals or groups, but are ideal illustrations of the different types.

·        Dichotomous or two-fold types – one with characteristic and others without. 

·        Independent types of classification.

·        Differences among types emphasized.

From these, Isajiw examines several different types.  Some of these are as follows.


1.  Majority and minority groups (Isajiw, p. 25).  This is an important distinction because ethnic groups are sometimes termed “minority groups” and the concept of minority group is more general than just minority ethnic groups.  In Canada, we also use visible minority as an official designation, so the concept of minority is widely used


Majority.  Isajiw uses a power and dominance criterion to distinguish majority and minority.  “majority ethnic groups are those who determine the character of the society’s basic institutions, especially the political and economic institutions.”  They also determine the “norms of society as a whole, including the legal system,” meaning that “their culture becomes the culture of the total society.”  Members of majority groups are likely to be at the top of the economic, political, and status hierarchy, and the decision-makers are usually among the majority group. 


Minority.  In contrast, the minority group is all groups other than the dominant, majority group.  Members of minority groups must adapt in at least some ways, to incorporate themselves in the culture and society.  Isajiw notes that this does not mean the minority group must lose all aspects of its culture, or all its institutions, although some majority groups have attempted to do this with some minorities. 


Intermediate positions.  Isajiw introduces the concept of the intermediate positions.  These are groups such as the Jews in parts of Europe or the Chinese throughout much of southeast Asia, who tend to be urban shopkeepers, traders, and financiers.  Or the group may have many members with professions such as medicine and law.  These tend to be minority groups but with occupations or economic positions catering to both majority and minority groups.  Isajiw notes how these groups may become scapegoats for problems faced by society, even though they provide important services for society.  Such was the case with the Jews in early to mid-twentieth century Europe and the Indians in East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. 


Small groups?  Minority groups are generally numerically smaller than the majority group, although this may not always be the case.  For example, black people in South Africa were numerically dominant in South Africa during the apartheid years, but were politically weak and excluded from much of the society and economy.  In Canada, while the Quebecois today might be considered the majority group in Quebec, many Quebecois still consider themselves a minority group in Canada as a whole.  Prior to the 1960s, the Quebecois were secondary to the Anglo-Canadians in Quebec, although politically they occupied many of the powerful political positions.


Diversity within majority.  One issue that Isajiw does not raise in this section is that there is much diversity within each of the majority and minority.  As a result, most members of majority groups may not be decision-makers.  Class differences and other divisions may mean that only an elite, usually from the majority group, dominates political and economic decision-making.  Given that it is the majority which is dominant culturally, politically, and economically, this can lead members of minority, disadvantaged groups to stereotype members of the majority as powerful and wealthy.  While members of a majority group may generally have certain economic advantages over many from minority groups, their main advantage may be familiarity with the language and culture, and being accepted by the majority as not being minority, ethnic, or other. 


Visible minority


This has been, and continues to be an important concept in Canada.  Isajiw rejects the concept, since it implies whiteness as the dominant norm.  That is, who are “visible minorities” visible to?  They are visible only in the sense that the majority group is white.  He argues that the term is thus “non-symmetrical, implying that the non-whites are somehow a problem for the whites.”  (p. 23). 


While the logic of Isajiw’s argument seems correct, there are some reasons why it is necessary to use the term in Canada – perhaps a better designation or term, and approach to people of different “race,” will be used in the future.  In Canada, visible minority has an official meaning, in terms of federal economic and social policy.  Regardless of its undesirability, information about the number of members of visible minority members is obtained in the Canadian Census and the visible minority designation is part of federal employment equity programs (see the Employment Equity Act of Canada).  We will discuss these in more detail later, but there are four designated groups in various federal programs – women, aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities. 


The definition of visible minority in the Employment Equity Act is “persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.”  In terms of obtaining the number of members of visible minorities, the question from the Census of Canada (question 19 of the 2001 Census asks “Is this person white, Chinese, South Asian, …., Korean, Other.”  A note by the question states “This information is collected to support programs that promote equal opportunity for everyone to share in the social, cultural and economic life of Canada.”  In the 2001 Census Handbook, Statistics Canada states this information is related to legislative and program requirements in the Employment Equity Act, Official Languages Act, and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.  However, I could find no reference to visible minorities in the latter, although there is a statement about eliminating barriers for those in ethnic minorities.


Regardless of whether the term “visible minority” is acceptable or not, it is widely used in Canada and the number of people within each of the ten categories used to classify those of visible minority origin would be available from other tabulations of ethnicity (see Isajiw, pp. 48-51).  The ten-fold visible minority categorization is an unusal one, using combinations of race (black), ethnicity (Arab), country of origin or nationality (Korean), and region (Southeast Asian).  The list was developed at least partly as a result of the Special Committee on Visible Minorities in Canadian Society, and the report Equality Now! 


See for the number of visible minority people counted by the Census of Canada in 2001.








Anderson, Benedict.  1991.  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition, London, Verso.

Burkey, Richard M.  1978. Ethnic and Racial Groups: the Dynamics of Dominance, Menlo Park, Cummings. HT1521 B82

Diner, Hasia R.  2001.  Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.  GT2853 U5 D54.

Driedger, Leo.  1989.  The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity, Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1958.

Giddens, Anthony and David Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict:  Classical and Contemporary Debates, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982).  HT675 C55 1982

Jacobson, Matthew Frye.  1998.  Whiteness of a Different Color, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Li, Peter S. 1998.  Ethnic Inequality in a Class Society, Toronto, Thompson Educational Publishing.

Li, Peter S.  2003.  Destination Canada: Immigration Debates and Issues, Toronto, Oxford University Press.

Satzwich, Vic.  1998.  Racism and Social Inequality in Canada, Toronto, Thompson Educational Publishing.

Theodorson, George A., A Modern Dictionary of Sociology, New York, Crowell, 1969.  HM17 T5

Weber, Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, New York, Bedminster Press, 1968.  HM57 W342




Notes last edited on September 18, 2004.