Race, Ethnicity, and Stratification Essay

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An important research field in the stratification literature is concerned with inequalities along the ascribed characteristics of race and ethnicity. The term race connotes biological differences among people (skin color, facial features) that are transmitted from generation to generation. As such, these biological differences are seen as permanent characteristics of people. However, the notion of race does not make much sense as a biological concept, because the physical characteristics that make people distinctive are trivial. Even though biological differences are superficial, they are important sociologically. For if people believe that others are biologically distinctive, they tend to respond to them as being different. Furthermore, skin color is transmitted from generation to generation by assortative marriage, a prime sociological phenomenon.

Race is considered a social construct and in that sense incorporated in the more general notion of ethnicity. An ethnic group is a subpopulation of individuals who are labeled by the majority and by the members of a group itself as being of a particular ethnicity. The term ethnicity refers to the (perceived) historical experiences of a group as well as its unique organizational, behavioral, and/or cultural characteristics. Thus, ethnic groups can be distinguished by their country of origin, religion, family practices, language, beliefs, and values. The more visible the characteristics marking ethnicity, the more likely it is that those in an ethnic category will be treated differently.

Ethnic inequality is documented in different ways. Important aspects of inequality include education (school dropout, educational attainment), the labor market (unemployment, occupational status, income), wealth, housing quality, and health. These issues are examined at the national level, telling us something about the distribution within a population, and at the individual level, informing us about mobility. Questions on mobility include examinations of the life course of people (i.e., intragenerational) and studies comparing parents and their children (i.e., intergenerational).

The literature on ethnic stratification is divided into three different research lines. The first is concerned with the position of indigenous populations that were annexed through military operations and colonization, such as the American Indians in North and South America, Aboriginals in Australia, and Maori in New Zealand. The second focuses on ethnic groups that are the offspring of slaves or involuntary migrants, such as African Americans in America. The third is concerned with the economic position of voluntary migrants and their offspring, such as the Italians who moved to the US at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many researchers use notions of discrimination to explain group differences in ethnic stratification. Two different types of ethnic discrimination (i.e., the unequal treatment of minority groups) are outlined: attitudinal and institutional. Attitudinal discrimination refers to discriminatory practices influenced by prejudice. Research shows that prejudice, and, in turn, discrimination, tends to increase when ethnic groups are perceived as threatening to the majority population in terms of cultural, economic, or political resources. Ethnic groups that are numerically large and that are distinct culturally are especially vulnerable to discrimination. This led to theories about ethnic competition and split labor markets.

Another important theory is that of statistical discrimination. Institutional discrimination refers to rules, policies, practices, and laws that discriminate against ethnic groups. This type of discrimination is used to explain the economic difficulties that African slaves and their offspring experienced in the USA. For instance, through the first half of the twentieth century, they were formally excluded from acquiring or inheriting property, marrying whites, voting, testifying against whites in court, and attending higher-quality schools.

Various research designs have been used to study ethnic stratification. The classical design is the case study, in which a single ethnic group in a single receiving context is examined. Because this design provides little information on contextual effects, comparative macro designs have also been developed. One such popular framework is the ”comparative origin” method, which compares multiple ethnic groups in a single location, yielding important insights into ethnic group differences. Similarly, researchers have paid attention to the role of the receiving context by comparing a single ethnic group across multiple destinations, such as cities or nations (”comparative destination” design). More recently, these macro approaches have been combined into a ”double comparative” design, which studies multiple-origin groups in multiple destinations simultaneously. This design provides a better understanding of ethnic origin, the receiving context, and the specific interaction between origin and destination (”ethnic community”).

Researchers nowadays agree that ethnicity plays a role in people’s life chances, that ethnic groups gradually improve their economic standing across generations, and that the process of assimilation can be interpreted in terms of human capital accumulation. At the same time, it is found that assimilation rates of ethnic groups vary. Initially, researchers have relied on theories of biological traits and cultural dispositions to explain such group differences, but they have been largely replaced by extensions of the human capital theory, ideas on discrimination, the concept of ethnic capital, and spatial differences in economic opportunities. In recent work, researchers have combined the theories explaining group differences with micro-level approaches explaining individual assimilation.


  1. Aguirre, A. & Turner, J. H. (2004) American Ethnicity: The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  2. Alba, R. & Nee, V. (2003) Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Gordon, M. M. (1964) Assimilation in American Life. Oxford University Press, New York.

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