Race, Culture and Ethnicity in Minority Research: A Critical Discussion

Article excerpt

Abstract: Race and ethnicity are terms commonly used in ethnic minority research. Both these terms present a number of problems in terms of definition and classification. It is argued here that there is a need to move beyond essentialised concepts of race and ethnicity to examine the socio-political processes which relate to their social construction and the ways in which these terms articulate with other categories such as social class and gender and structure social relationships. The implications of the social constructionist position are discussed specifically in relation to the use of interpreters and ethnic matching of researcher and respondent in qualitative research on ethnic minorities.

Key Words: Race, Culture, Cultural Diversity, Ethnicity, Ethnicity in Minority Research

Race and Ethnicity as Modern Concepts

Culture, race and ethnicity are terms commonly used in health services literature, often in a confusing and contradictory way. The term race generally refers to the social group a person belongs to on account of a mix of physical characteristics; whereas, ethnicity refers to the social group a person belongs to based on a shared culture.

Concepts of race and ethnicity originated in the global expansion of European societies from the late fifteenth century onwards, a process associated with the growing exploration of other parts of the world which brought Europeans increasingly into contact with other societies. New ways of classifying the world emerged associated with the rise of scientific knowledge. These ideas about racialised differences relating to 'natural,' observable, physical characteristics, mental capabilities and patterns of behaviour that separate and define different groups, are relatively modern and new (Dubow, 1995).

The concept of race in its modern form emerged at the middle of the nineteenth century as part of this general growth of scientific inquiry and expansion. This science of race characterised human diversity as a "division between fixed and separate races rooted in biological difference and the product of divergent heritages" (Mason, 2000, p. 6). Associated with this concept of difference was a notion of hierarchy, which was legitimised by the rise of social Darwinism and the age of empire. A similar relation between science and politics led to the discrediting of race science at the end of World War II when modern genetic science provided further support for evolutionary accounts and undermined the notion of biological immutability (La Veist, 1994). The concept of biological race gradually disappeared, but the notion of race as a social relationship still exists among social scientists. It has been redefined as a cultural and socio-political construct rather than as a biological one. There have, however, been a number of criticisms of the notion of race.

Bhopal (2001) points out that the definition of race is lacking. There is both a lack of validity of racial classifications, and also a failure to consider the possibility that it is racism rather than race or ethnicity, which underlie differences in disease experience. Smith (2002), argues that the major objection to the present concept of race is that there is no good reason for selecting only certain phenotypical (environmental and genetically caused) or morphological characteristics of human beings in terms of which the concept of race is to be defined rather than other equally good phenotypical and morphological features in terms of which race might have been just as well defined.

As a sociological concept, some have argued that race remains a legitimate concept for sociological analysis, because social actors treat it as real and organise their lives in exclusionary practices by reference to it (Mason, 2000). Mason argues that race does not refer to categories of human beings. Rather, it is a social relationship in which structural positions and social actions are ordered and justified by reference systems of symbols and beliefs which emphasise the social cultural relevance of biologically rooted characteristics. …

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