Race (social)

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This article is about the social construct. For other uses of the term Race, please see Race (disambiguation).

The term race refers to humans with different physical attributes. This concept became part of the European framework of ideas at the beginning of modern history. Classical Greece and Rome were home to a large number of Africans, or Ethiopians as they were known in early Europe, without apparently any conception of “race” or species developing in those societies. In what were predominantly white societies at that time, the black man was neither romanticized nor scorned but “treated without prejudice”. [1] For example, as many as three black Africans served as popes – St. Victor I (189-199 AD), St. Miltiades (311-314 AD) and St. Gelasius I (492-496 AD). Most remarkably, a 9th century fresco of Miltiades shows his clear African appearance, while later representations have wiped out all traces of his African ancestry and actual facial characteristics. [2]

“Race” as a distinction between different types of humans entered the European vocabulary towards the end of the 15th century,[3] particularly in Iberia. It quickly came to mark Europe over the next few centuries, especially in the drive to state sovereignty; by the late 19th century, the race concept had assumed throughout Europe a sense of naturalness and a taken-for-granted ordering of social arrangements. “Science and literature, scripture and law, culture and political rhetoric all worked in subtle and blunt ways to establish the presumption of white supremacy… and black disenfranchisement”.[4] Nor was this confined to the West: Yan-Fu (1853-1902), the Chinese scholar who promoted Darwinian theory, considered that there were “four main races on the earth: the yellow, the white, the brown and the black… The black race is the lowest…”[5]

By the end of the 20th century, a rather different consensus had emerged amongst academics from all disciplines – the humanities, the social sciences and the biological sciences – that biological races do not exist in humans.[6] Nevertheless, for a lay person the idea of race seems to have retained its value as a useful concept in managing and interpreting the world at the individual level. This “commonsense approach” thus marks out popular discourse from that of the scientific community; nor do advocates of “racialism” feel the need to justify what is, to them, obvious. The task of social science is to explain the persistence of racial beliefs, the patterns of behaviour and their consequences: it is not sufficient to deny that race exists,[7] although social science is far from unanimous in how to deal with issues of studying racism and racial phenomena.

Different or confused concepts?

Race in its popular usage appears to be a categorization of people according to specific physical attributes: most commonly, these are skin colour, facial characteristics and sometimes hair type. As these are supposed to be genetic differences, culture and environment should have no role to play.

Ethnicity, or membership of a particular ethnic group, on the other hand, is linked specifically with historical and cultural commonalities shared by all members of that ethnic group. Although genetic differences may occur between groups, and be visible in the same way as claimed for racial differences, these are not a necessary feature. Nor are visible similarities within a group a necessary condition. Thus, ethnicity is historically and socially constructed.

Identity is a complex concept, which defies easy definition. It constitutes the connection between individuals and society, although the precise nature of this connection is the focus of a multitude of competing social theories. It is associated with time, place and membership of social groups, and is thus relevant to both ethnicity and race.

What can be observed over the last few centuries, is that race, ethnicity and even social class have co-existed and merged in complex ways. Few people distinguish between ethnicity and race, and to a great extent these are determinative of social class. Given the inability of biologists, and most recently geneticists, to provide any support for the biological concept of race, the almost unanimous view of social science is that Race is a social construction. This is applied to both the historical and contemporary world.

Science and Race: historical background

“Over the last three centuries, scientific and ‘folk’ conceptions of race have been inextricably intertwined. Because of this interweaving, scientists tend to look back over the history of their respective fields and conclude that previous generations erred by being caught up in the social maelstrom of their times (slavery, eugenics… )”.[8]

Race is one of the most inflammatory, slippery, maddeningly paradoxical concepts to afflict human consciousness; witness its ugly history. Shamefully, perversions of biology, anthropology and psychology have at various times racially justified colonialism, slavery and disenfranchisement. Medicine's own intersections with concepts of race have tended to be horrible as well: the grotesque Nazi experiments and the notorious Tuskegee studies of syphilis spring to mind.[9]

(PD) Illustration: Unknown
1868 description purporting to show that black and white people were as different as humans and chimpanzees.

Thus begin two modern accounts of the role of science in racial debate. What is remarkable is that for centuries science has taken popular opinion on race as axiomatic and, post hoc, constructed “scientific” rationalizations supporting the mainstream socio-political thinking of each period.

The earliest attempt at classification of humans into races was made by the French traveller, physician and philosopher François Bernier, in 1684.[10] From his travels, he concluded that there were “four or five Species or Races of men which are so radically different from one another”.[11] His categorization was based on physical characteristics, but not on skin colour which he thought to be accidental and climate-related. The four races he specifically identifies are the inhabitants of (1) Europe, Russia, North Africa, Arabia; (2) Africa [except the North]; (3) Philippines, Japan, China, part of Russia; and (4) the race of the Lapps. This division of the world into human “species” marks a clear transition from the old religious bases of human history alongside an anticipation of the 18th century natural history approach.[12]

In the 18th century, scientists sought to classify humans taxonomically in much the same way as they had other species. Starting with four races (Linnaeus, 1758) and then five (Blumenbach, 1775) they constructed a hierarchy of humans, claiming that “differences in skin color, physiognomy and geography were associated with… differences in character, aptitude, and temperament”.[13] As the science of anthropology developed in the 19th century, European and American scientists began to look for biological explanations for the behavioural and cultural differences which they attributed to different racial groups. This included measurement of skull size and shapes, relating the results to group differences in intelligence and other attributes.[14] A key text of the time was Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857) by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon, which juxtaposed sketches of “typical” Greek, negro and chimpanzee skulls to show the supposed similarity of the latter two [see figure to the right].

The scientifically-endorsed concept of race found wide application, including the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries [see Eugenics]. The idea of race (and implicitly, racial purity) became a mechanism for rigidly segregating groups within society by virtue of culture as well as physical appearance.[15] Campaigns of oppression and genocide justified by racial difference have occurred across the world, but perhaps reached their ultimate horrors in the “Holocaust” of Nazi Germany. It is no accident that, since 1945, science has abandoned its earlier mission of proving the “profound and unalterable” differences among races which are “naturally unequal”.[16]

Contemporary scientific thinking on "race"

What do social scientists mean when they say that “race is socially constructed”?

A socially constructed phenomenon is one which has been created by society, but has little or no substance outside of that social context. Such social constructions are frequently presented as “common sense” and obvious truths in everyday narratives: it is left to social science to challenge the veracity of these, along with deconstructing them.

Social science’s earliest significant contribution to the study of race began with the work of Robert Park, with the premise that “we interact with others not directly but on the basis of our ideas about them. The ‘proper’ facts of society are therefore the imaginings we have of each other.” [17] In Park’s view, race relations became “relations which are fixed in and enforced by custom, convention and the routine of an expected social order of which there may be at the moment no very lively consciousness”.[18] He notes that social actors use ‘marks of racial descent’ as the basis for distinguishing groups and individuals: of course, the primary issue at that time in the USA was skin colour. In more recent times, the work of John Rex has extended the analysis, with a sociological definition of race and arguments for viewing certain social relations as race relations. Other social science analytical traditions – e.g. postmodernism, realism – approach race differently, but we will not deal with them here.

Thus, we can note a reification of notions of different races: in the absence of solid support from the biological sciences, these notions can be identified as wholly socially-constructed. The social relations which are implicit in notions of race have major ramifications for individuals’ participation in society. The extreme cases involving skin colour can be found with the history of forced slavery of Africans imported into the Americas and Europe; the apartheid systems that existed in the USA, South Africa and Rhodesia; and comparable (but little-known) situations across the globe. Yet, there are also more subtle forms of racial behaviour, concerning access to jobs, education, housing, etc.: these are all socially constructed, and historically were justified as being attributable to the alleged inferior character of people with black skin.


  • Williams, Vernon J., Jr, The Social Sciences and Theories of Race. (University of Illinois Press, 2006. 151 pp. isbn 978-0-252-07320-5.)


  1. Frank Snowden (1970): Blacks in Antiquity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  2. Edward Scobie (1985): ‘African Popes’, pp. 96-107 in Ivan van Sertima, African Presence in Early Europe, Rutgers State University, Transaction Publishers
  3. Michel Wieviorka (1995): The Arena of Racism, London: Sage, p. 2
  4. David Goldberg (2004): ‘The end(s) of race’, Postcolonial Studies, 7/2, p. 212
  5. cited in Frank Díkötter (1996): ‘The Idea of “race” in Modern China’, in J. Hutchinson and A.D. Smith (eds), Ethnicity, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  6. Lisa Gannett (2004): ‘The Biological Reification of Race’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 55, p. 323
  7. Bob Carter (2000): Realism and Racism, London: Routledge
  8. Pilar Ossorio and Troy Duster (2005): ‘Race and Genetics’, American Psychologist, 60/1, p. 115
  9. John Rennie (2007): ‘Little Black Pills’, Scientific American, Aug 2007, 297/2, p6
  10. M. L. Dufrenoy (1950): ‘A Precursor of a Modern Anthropology: Francois Bernier (1620-1688)’, Isis, 41/1, pp. 27-29
  11. translation from the French, provided by Dufrenoy (1950) op. cit.
  12. Siep Stuurman (2000): ‘Francois Bernier and the Invention of Racial Classification’, History Workshop Journal, 50, pp. 1-21
  13. Valerie L. Bonham, Esther Warshauer-Baker and Francis S. Collins (2005): ‘Race and Ethnicity in the Genome Era: The Complexity of the Constructs’, American Psychologist, 60/1, p. 12
  14. The Race, Ethnicity & Genetics Working Group, National Human Genome Research Institute (2005): ‘The Use of Racial, Ethnic, and Ancestral Categories in Human Genetics Research’, American Journal of Human Genetics, 77, pp. 519-532
  15. The Race, Ethnicity & Genetics Working Group (2005), op. cit. p. 523
  16. Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley (2005): ‘Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real’, American Psychologist, 60/1, p. 20
  17. Bob Carter (2000): op. cit., p. 11
  18. Robert Park (1950): Race and Culture, New York: The Free Press, p. 83