The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity

Chinese New Year celebration in NYC
The Chinese New Year celebration in New York City signifies the importance of ethnicity in building and maintaining community. Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

The sociology of race and ethnicity is a large and vibrant subfield within sociology in which researchers and theorists focus on the ways that social, political, and economic relations interact with race and ethnicity in a given society, region, or community. Topics and methods in this subfield are wide-ranging, and the development of the field dates back to the early 20th century.

W.E.B. Du Bois Pioneers the Subfield

The sociology of race and ethnicity began to take shape in the late 19th century. The American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, is credited with pioneering the subfield within the United States with his famous and still widely taught books The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction.

However, the subfield today differs greatly from its early stages. When early American sociologists focused on race and ethnicity, du Bois excepted, they tended to focus on the concepts of integration, acculturation, and assimilation, in keeping with the view of the U.S. as a "melting pot" into which difference should be absorbed. Concerns during the early 20th century were for teaching those who differed visually, culturally, or linguistically from the white Anglo-Saxon norms how to think, speak, and act in accordance with them. This approach to studying race and ethnicity framed those who were not white Anglo-Saxon as problems that needed to be solved and was directed primarily by sociologists who were white men from middle to upper-class families.

Different Theoretical Perspectives Developed

As more people of color and women became social scientists throughout the twentieth century, they created and developed theoretical perspectives that differed from the normative approach in sociology, and crafted research from different standpoints that shifted the analytic focus from particular populations to social relations and the social system.

Today, sociologists within the subfield of race and ethnicity focus on areas including racial and ethnic identities, social relations and interactions within and across racial and ethnic lines, racial and ethnic stratification and segregation, culture and worldview and how these relate to race, and power and inequality relative to majority and minority statuses in society.

But, before we learn more about this subfield, it's important to have a clear understanding of how sociologists define race and ethnicity.

How Sociologists Define Race and Ethnicity

Most readers have an understanding of what race is and means in U.S. society. Race refers to how we categorize people by skin color and phenotype—certain physical facial features that are shared to a certain degree by a given group. Common racial categories that most people would recognize in the U.S. include Black, white, Asian, Latino, and American Indian. But the tricky bit is that there is absolutely no biological determinant of race. Instead, sociologists recognize that our idea of race and racial categories are social constructs that are unstable and shifting, and that can be seen to have changed over time in relation to historical and political events. We also recognize race as defined in large part by context. "Black" means something different in the U.S. versus Brazil versus India, for example, and this difference in meaning manifests in real differences in social experience.

Ethnicity Based on Shared Common Culture

Ethnicity is likely a bit more difficult to explain for most people. Unlike race, which is primarily seen and understood on the basis of skin color and phenotype, ethnicity does not necessarily provide visual cues. Instead, it is based on a shared common culture, including elements like language, religion, art, music, and literature, and norms, customs, practices, and history. An ethnic group does not exist simply because of the common national or cultural origins of the group, however. They develop because of their unique historical and social experiences, which become the basis for the group’s ethnic identity. For example, prior to immigration to the U.S., Italians did not think of themselves as a distinct group with common interests and experiences. However, the process of immigration and the experiences they faced as a group in their new homeland, including discrimination, created a new ethnic identity.

Within a racial group, there can be several ethnic groups. For example, a white American might identify as part of a variety of ethnic groups including German American, Polish American, and Irish American, among others. Other examples of ethnic groups within the U.S. include and are not limited to Creole, Caribbean Americans, Mexican Americans, and Arab Americans.

Key Concepts and Theories of Race and Ethnicity

Early American sociologist W.E.B. du Bois offered one of the most important and lasting theoretical contributions to the sociology of race and ethnicity when he presented the concept of "double-consciousness" in The Souls of Black Folk. This concept refers to the way in which people of color in predominantly white societies and spaces and ethnic minorities have the experience of seeing themselves through their own eyes, but also of seeing themselves as "other" through the eyes of the white majority. This results in a conflicting and often distressing experience of the process of identity formation.

Racial Formation Theory

Racial formation theory, developed by sociologists Howard Winant and Michael Omi, frames race as an unstable, ever-evolving social construct that is tied to historical and political events. They assert that differing "racial projects" that seek to define race and racial categories are engaged in constant competition to give the dominant meaning to race. Their theory illuminates how race has been and continues to be a politically contested social construct, upon which is granted access to rights, resources, and power.

Theory of Systematic Racism

The theory of systemic racism, developed by sociologist Joe Feagin, is an important and widely used theory of race and racism that has gained particular traction since the rise of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Feagin's theory, rooted in historical documentation, asserts that racism was built into the very foundation of U.S. society and that it now exists within every aspect of society. Connecting economic wealth and impoverishment, politics and disenfranchisement, racism within institutions like schools and media, to racist assumptions and ideas, Feagin's theory is a roadmap for understanding the origins of racism in the U.S., how it operates today, and what anti-racist activists can do to combat it.

Concept of Intersectionality

Initially articulated by legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality would become a cornerstone of the theory of sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, and an important theoretical concept of all sociological approaches to race and ethnicity within the academy today. The concept refers to the necessity of considering the different social categories and forces that race interacts with as people experience the world, including but not limited to gender, economic class, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, and ability.

Research Topics in Race and Ethnicity

Sociologists of race and ethnicity study just about anything one could imagine, but some core topics within the subfield include the following.

Racial Identity, Racism, and Criminal Justice

  • How race and ethnicity shape the process of identity formation for individuals and communities, like for example the complicated process of creating a racial identity as a mixed-race person.
  • How racism manifests in everyday life and shapes one's life trajectory. For example, how racial biases affect student-teacher interaction from elementary school to university and graduate school, and how skin color affects perceived intelligence.
  • The relationship between race and the police and the criminal justice system, including how race and racism affect policing tactics and arrest rates, sentencing, incarceration rates, and life after parole. In 2014, many sociologists came together to create The Ferguson Syllabus, which is a reading list and teaching tool for understanding the long history and contemporary aspects of these issues.

Residential Segregation and "Whiteness"

  • The long history and contemporary problem of residential segregation, and how this affects everything from family wealth, economic well-being, education, access to healthy food, and health.
  • Since the 1980s, whiteness has been an important topic of study within the sociology of race and ethnicity. Up until that point, it was largely neglected academically because it was simply seen as the norm against which difference was measured. Thanks largely to scholar Peggy McIntosh, who helped people understand the concept of white privilege, what it means to be white, who can be considered white, and how whiteness fits within the social structure is a vibrant topic of study.

The sociology of race and ethnicity is a vibrant subfield that hosts a wealth and diversity of research and theory. The American Sociological Association even has a webpage devoted to it.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Crossman, Ashley. (2023, April 5). The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).