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Race and Ethnicity

Topic: Demographic Structure Of Society

Race is a socially defined category based on differences between groups of people.

Race and ethnicity

Race is widely accepted to be a social construct and therefore not distinguishable based on biology alone but focuses on different physical characteristics of a group. There is no genetic significance between humans as all living humans belong to the same hominid subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. But race can be categorized by broad categories usually based on skin color or national origin.

Ethnicity is instead defined as a group that has a common racial,  religion, nationality or cultural factor. Ethnic groups are harder to define than racial groups due to the amorphous quality of many of the characteristics of an ethnic group.


Racialization is the process where a majority group in society ascribes a behavior or characteristic to a minority group that they do not identify with themselves. For example, in America, it is stereotyped that racial minority groups in the workforce have lower-paying jobs. This is based on many factors such as access to education, different cultural approaches to family and family background but this is perpetuated in society by the majority group as a characteristic of minority Latin American and African American racial groups, a label that they did not designate themselves.

Racial Formation

The formation of racial groups has long been examined by sociologists and racial formation highlights the way that a race is socially constructed by groups in society. It is the linking of social, economic and political forces shaping racial categories and assigning them in hierarchies. Racial identities change over time and part of racial formation theory explores the forces that categorize and separate groups into races in society. This change can be shaped by how races are represented in the media, imagery, and language in everyday use, all of which lend weight to a race’s identity and society’s perceptions of that race.

As well as racialization there is the theory of racial formation. This theory was developed by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. Racial formation theory looks at race as a socially constructed identity, where the content and importance of racial categories are determined by social, economic, and political forces. For example, slavery as a concept can affect anyone of any race or ethnicity but is predominately associated with African Americans due to the historical and social context.

Practice Questions

Khan Academy

MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Online Flashcards Sociology Question 5

Practice Exam 1 P/S Section Passage 10 Question 55

Practice Exam 3 P/S Section Question 29

Key Points

• Race is a social construct to group people based on common physical characteristics whereas ethnicity is social identity based on commonality in racial, national or cultural identity

• Racialization is the assigning of a behavior or characteristic to a minority group by a majority group

• Racial formation is a theory that explores how racial groups identity forms and changes over time due to different events

Key Terms

ethnicity: the identity of a group of people having common racial, national, religious, or cultural origins.

social construct: social constructs are generally understood to be the by-products of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature

race: a large group of people distinguished from others on the basis of a common heritage or common physical characteristics, such as skin color and hair type

racialization: the process where a majority group in society ascribes a behavior or characteristic to a minority group that they do not identify with themselves

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