‘Race’ is a commonsense term, the meaning of which has been deliberated by sociologists, many of whom believe it should be discarded. The concept of ‘race’ supposes there are biological features which distinguish groups of people whilst the phrase ‘racial conflicts’ presumes disagreement arises solely from contact between ‘races’ rather than aspects dissociated from ‘race’ such as political or economical debate.
Today, it is widely believed biological ‘races’ are nothing but social constructs and scientists and sociologists alike disagree humans are divided into several different types of species according to dissimilar physical or genetic characteristics. Although there are noticeable physical differences, these are dissociated from the stereotypical characteristics unwillingly taken on by different communities across the world, for example, in the 18th century, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, identified human subgroups according to what he decided were geographical, physical and mental characteristics which separated each group.
He claimed white man, the Homo sapiens europaeus, was lively, inventive and intelligent while the black man, the Homo sapiens afer was cunning, slow and negligent. Though he researched each aspect of the black and white communities, his outcome places emphasis on the positive characteristics of people with pale skin and the negative features of those with darker skin which many believe is entirely invalid, asking why people should be separated by their skin colour. To assume the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ have the same meaning would be wrong. Race’ refers to groups which exhibit unchangeable biological and mental attributes.
Popeau quotes ” Race is a concept that has long been used to ascribe natural differences to people from different cultural backgrounds” A term inherited from 18th- and 19th-century colonialism, ‘race’ is defined as ‘socially and politically consequential grouping of people based on physical appearance, ancestry and culture. ‘ suggesting a persistent need to define and differentiate between groups – too often for negative reasons, and often based on myth. Ethnicity’ refers to the social and cultural such as music, food, dress and language, aspects which change through time, unlike the presumed inherent attributes which the term ‘race’ embodies. It is suggested that there were three distinct periods in which contributions were made to the development of notions of ‘race’ after the Reformation. The first period occurred during the years 1684-1815, the era of the discovery of the ‘New World’ and the ensuing triangular slave trade.
Writers of this time dealt explicitly with the idea of race, believing it to be an ethnic grouping. In 1775, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach wrote ‘The Natural Varieties of Man’ in which he classified modern humans into five broad categories; Caucasian, Mongoloid, Malayan, Ethiopian and American, based primarily on measurements of the skull. This period is where many writers believe the assumption of distinctive physical characteristics across racial groups derives from distinctive physical characteristics.
Many assumed black people had larger, more prominent features such as the stereotypical bulbous nose and large mouth. In the period of 1815-70, writers such as Kant believed that the nature and character of a person was innate. During this time, an ideology developed. It was thought the origins of nations and states were not political, but rather formed by linguistic criteria. Therefore where, prior to the Enlightenment, religion had once ‘explained’ inequalities amongst human beings, ideas of natural law and evolution replaced religious ideology.
What burst upon the scene in 1842 and 1859 through the works of Spencer and Darwin was a movement that treaded political activity as subject to the same rules of evolution that applied to the natural biological world and thus provided a scientific basis for decrying all those aspects of the Greco-Roman polity and Christian civilisation that were out of step with modernity” (Hannaford, 1996, p. p. 275-6). It was in this period that Linnaeus described the differences between the inhabitants of northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa in the same way as he would the differences between, for example cats and dogs.
He described the former as inventive and orderly whilst the latter were described as “lazy, devious and unable to govern themselves. ” His objectivity was questioned as a result of his own European origin. However, it is Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-82) who is thought to have founded scientific racism. He was heavily influenced by both Blumenbach and Linneus and in his 1853 work entitled ‘Essay on the Inequalities of Human Races’ he argued that humans are separated into noticeable ‘races’ which are innately unequal.
He described black people as having little intelligence yet overdeveloped sensuality while white people are independent, honourable and spiritual. Social factors were ruled out by Gobineau as determining inequalities, while inherited features according to race were distributed unevenly, resulting in a lack of opportunity for certain so-called ‘species. ‘
Gobineau noted the superiority of the white race above others who had no chance to improve themselves through social organisation because they were somehow ‘programmed’ to be ‘inferior. In 1859 Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ and in it, lent support to Gobineau’s work. Darwin studied the natural world and found that species evolved to meet the criterion of survival within their own environment and the species that did not evolve became extinct. The subsequent period of 1870-1914 saw the development in the human sciences to become the main era of racialised thought and furthered the development of scientific racism.
The race theory of Monogenesis was brought about at this time, stating all human beings shared the same origin, based on the ideology that all of us originated from the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The contrasting theory of polygenesis assumed at least some of the races had a separate origin and became a widespread notion, particularly in America. However, as Darwin later states in ‘Decent of Man,’ ‘we may conclude that when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and the polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.
Throughout history, ‘race’ has been based on the principal of biological reductionism but modern developments in sociological views on constructs and advances in genetic science mean that the idea of ‘race’ being a biological construct has faded away. The common sense definition of ‘race’ is largely related to biology. As Gobineau and several scientists contended certain ‘races’ were superior, a hierarchical structure formed and society’s attitudes towards different ‘races’ were shaped accordingly.
Africans in particular felt the impact of stereotyping, which labelled them as ‘less than human’ and a burden on the white species. However the idea of ‘races’ being biologically inferior can be taken to the extreme such as the Nazi’s solution to the inferiority of Jewish people. After the holocaust, approaches towards biological race began to change and the focus was shifted to cultural differences in the 1960s. As a result of afro-Caribbean workers migrating to England, politicians brought this ‘problem’ to the attention of the public through political speeches.
For example, in 1978, Margaret Thatcher claimed ‘people are really afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture. ‘ This encouraged public awareness of cultural differences. The British public became increasingly aware there was more than superficial biological differences such as skin colour between the British and other ‘races’ or cultures.
The shift to ‘new racism’ does not involve hierarchies or ideas of inferiority but the differences between races are well documented, causing tension between different ‘races. Whereas before there were physical differences and prejudice to contend with, people became increasingly unable to relate to those of a different ‘race. ‘ Politicians coined the term ‘ethnicity’ through the idea of ‘new racism,’ the inability to understand or relate to aspects of different cultures such as arranged marriages or religious practises. Both ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ are ‘socially produced concept’ but ‘ethnicity’ is one ‘which cannot simply be reduced to a ‘biological’ content’
Due to results in genetic science we know that ‘race’ on a biological level has no meaning but while ‘race’ is no longer deemed a biological concept, it is now viewed as a social construct as it does not refer to anything that can be proved as real. However whether as a social or biological construct, the term still serves a purpose, mainly allowing us to differentiate and learn about racial differences. Rather than differentiate between races, the shift has moved to human variation and according to Popeau, ‘there is often greater variation within a ‘racial’ group than between two different groups.
For example, two random Koreans could be as genetically different as a Korean and an Italian. Sociologists always use the term ‘race’ in inverted commas therefore showing their awareness to its claimed scientific irrelevance and ideological connotations. However some sociologists suggest that “we should reject the concept altogether [as being] an ideological construct: its use only serves to give respectability to discredited racist ideas” (Bradley 1996:120).
The sociological argument against this idea is that class and gender are also “constructs; since constructs inform the way people think and act in relation to others the effects of ‘race’ are very real. ” (Bradley 1996:121). Furthermore, Discarding the word “race” would not make deeply embedded social distinctions disappear, but it could leave us without words to define them. As racism is such an ongoing issue, discarding the term “race” would only result in the substitution of other comparable words so discarding the term, however false the issues it relates to may be, would be futile.
Therefore although the term ‘race’ is no longer used directly in relation to biological differences between people, it is continually used as a social construct and while there are no biological ‘races’, there are still clearly different cultures. In reality we need a term to be able to appreciate, identify and understand differences between cultures and although the term ‘race’ is often questioned, to discard it would be unrealistic and unnecessary.