Social Construction of Race & Ethnicity

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  • 0:03 Social Constructs:…
  • 1:00 What Is Race?
  • 2:44 What Is Ethnicity?
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
Is race biological? Is ethnicity socially constructed? In this lesson, we'll talk about contemporary theories of race and ethnicity that view these categories as social constructions and not as biological givens, as is commonly assumed.

Social Construction: Race & Ethnicity

Skin color, eye color, food, language, dress. All of these factors are related to the concepts of race and ethnicity. This lesson will look at how these two important categories shape social life and life chances in the United States. But first, we should talk about how sociologists view these categories as socially constructed. What do we mean by that? While we might think of certain things, like race, as given or natural phenomenon, sociologists think of many things as products of our society. That is, categories can take on meaning because of the way that they are shaped by society. It's kind of like we collectively assign things meaning. It comes from a perspective known as constructivism, which suggests that we come to an understanding of certain ideas in our society because we made them exist. Race and ethnicity are two great examples of socially constructed ideas in our society. Let's talk about what this means.

What Is Race?

We should start out with one very important statement: race is not a biological fact. In other words, there is no biological basis for differences between racial groups. What we come to think of as race, or physical difference, is called phenotype. Your phenotype refers to your physical characteristics like eye color and skin color. Phenotype means the observable physical differences in people. The problem is we've taken phenotype and used it to justify domination and exclusion based on physical difference. Sociologists believe that race is the product of our social world.

Early scientific studies argued that some racial groups were inferior to others. Scientists believed that race was biological and that certain races simply had less ability. Much of this science was based on the work of biologist Charles Darwin. Based on studies of finches in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin believed that certain species were more fit for survival. This is where the old adage 'survival of the fittest' comes from. But early social scientists applied these theories to humans, which led to justifying such atrocities as European colonization and slavery. Race became a key way of stratifying our society.

But contemporary scientists have debunked these early ideas about race. Studies have found there is more similarity within than between racial groups, meaning that we are not all that different from one another. So why does racial inequality still exist? Here's where the idea of social construction comes back in. Although we have refuted any biological basis of race, it remains a powerful ideology. The idea that races are different is deeply ingrained in our society and there is still a large degree of inequality based on race.

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