How Are Race And Ethnicity Socially Constructed?

By Antonia Čirjak on June 16 2020 in Society

Race and ethnicity, and problems that we witness happening on these bases in the present moment, are cultural constructs.
Race and ethnicity, and problems that we witness happening on these bases in the present moment, are cultural constructs.
  • From a sociological perspective, identity is not a fixed thing - it is fluid, and it can change.
  • Culture is shaped by a great number of actors, and problems in society usually happen when one of the actors tries to impose a specific type of truth. This is also known as hegemony.
  • Cultural hegemony is a situation where one group has dominance over other members of society and the right to define rules, rights, values, and norms.

Race and ethnicity, and problems that we witness happening on these bases in the present moment, are cultural constructs. Cultural constructs can be examined through a sociological perspective, one that will emphasize how these concepts are related to other structures and institutions that exist in a particular society. 

Social Constructionism

First of all, let us shortly deal with the idea of a social construct and how it is used in the social sciences. If you take a look at a difference between, for example, physics and sociology, you can understand how they approach not only different phenomena but also the way in which they try to explain them. In physics, there are laws that explain how the world around us works, and those laws are based on, most commonly, very precise models and empirical research that needs to confirm how the natural laws always apply.

When you investigate something as wide as culture, and the concepts of race and ethnicity that go along with it, you are dealing with concepts that always include something arbitrary, something culturally specific, and general phenomena that are shaped by all actors in the field of culture.

This does not mean that sociology does not need to insist on empirical research, or that we need to tangle ourselves into thinking which science is ‘’more precise.’’ The research subject is different, and when we think about social constructs, we are allowing for more than one truth to be present, no matter what the observed phenomena could be in front of us. 

Identity And Stereotypes

From a sociological standpoint, race and ethnicity is something that people identify themselves with. Also, it is a tool that people use for labeling others. Labeling, as such, is not necessarily a negative thing, because we, as human beings, label different events and people in a specific way, only to make our lives more organized. However, labeling is just another way of creating stereotypes.

The problem with stereotypes is that they capture everyone that looks, behaves, or talks differently in a hard-shell, which is hard to break. Stereotypes are hard to break, and if they circulate freely within a particular society, the people who they are aimed against, suffer the consequences. 

More than a century ago, a famous sociologist from the U.S., W.E.B. Du Bois said how the concept of race is the one that inherently ignores the idea of human diversity, and therefore does not allow for a diverse culture. For Du Bois, it made no sense to use a biological argument to create social and cultural differences between people, and he was always against the idea of labeling ‘’black’’ or ‘’white’’ as different. 

Difference Vs. Diversity

Simply put, race and ethnicity are social constructs because they are concepts that are formed through the input of various institutions that exist in a particular society. The crucial trigger that launches these issues, and in the end creates racism and xenophobia, here is the notion of ‘’difference’’. 

A difference as such is a complicated term, but when it is used by a racist discourse, it is a destructive force that divides people into two different groups: the ones who belong, and the ones who do not. People that are different from the majority of the population will often struggle in their everyday life.

The struggle can be based on any culturally created boundary that differentiates people, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, etc. A good thing about social constructs is that they can be deconstructed as well, which means that concepts of race and ethnicity can change. 

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