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Race & Ethnicity in Social Sciences

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Essay title: Race & Ethnicity in Social Sciences

Hazel Taylor December 2004

Q A Describe some of the ways in which the terms ‘race and ethnicity’ are used in the social sciences

Defining identity can be complex and therefore we have to investigate the factors involved that make us who we are and how we are seen by others, collectively or individually. Social scientists have to consider the key elements which shape identity, the importance of social structures and agency involved. The differences and/or similarities between us are the focus that categorise and label us in society. Knowing who we are is important for many reasons including, social rights, obtaining a passport, housing, health, employment, marriage, and over all, being able to ascertain who we are, and belong.

The terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are central features in the process of categorisation. ‘Racial’ or ‘Ethnic’ identifications are produced as part of a social process, which is dynamic and changing. Therefore we know that identities are not static and terms such as ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ cannot cover the changing categories without being dynamic terms themselves. The use of quotation marks with these terms is adopted to emphasise that the terms are broad terms and aim to avoid discrimination or misrepresentation of groups under the umbrella term.

‘Race’ is commonly used by media and society to portray the physical differences between people, however, social scientists choose to show that the term does not refer to exact biological differences, is stereotypical, and the quotation marks emphasise the concept as more of an assumption which has political implications. The term is socially constructed and therefore does serve an essential purpose in society as it has real affects and associations.

The term ‘ethnicity’ refers to cultural practices and history, such as religion, language and territory, where a person or a group derives from, summarising their beliefs and traditions, therefore, ethnicity applies to everyone, necessitating the birth of terms ‘minority ethnic group’ and ‘majority ethnic group’ (Questioning Identity, Ch 4, P124, section 2.3) to subcategorise identities in relation to ethnicity. Social scientists use quotation marks around these terms to signify that the blanket term does not distinguish between personal and social identity, but acts mainly as a collective identity concept. For example, identification on a British passport may categorise the holder as being ‘British’ although they may be Scottish/Chinese. Social scientists prefer to call UK society a ‘multi-ethnic” society. These subgroup identities highlight the relational factors which exist in categorising identity, each requiring the other in order to make the comparison between ethnic differences, power and status. Racialization and Ethnicization are preferred concepts as they contribute more to the idea that the identities we adopt are part of a process and are not static, referring to a dynamic process rather than a fixed state.

Categorisations from the 1970’s onwards, such as the definition of ‘black’ or ‘white’, were too vague, and failed to recognise the specific needs of other ethnic minorities. In order to monitor and measure statistically the discrimination and underachievement of such groups, collecting ‘ethnic’ statistics in relation to ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ was necessary and these can be found in official government censuses. Over the years it became apparent that categorisation of ethnic groups in the censuses rendered some groups ‘invisible’ (Questioning Identity, ch 4, p 137, section 4.1.1), for example Irish and Welsh. The category of ‘white’ has had to be expanded into subcategories as the ‘white’ grouping classification

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