Magazine article UNESCO Courier

What Is a Minority?

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

What Is a Minority?

Article excerpt

Applied to society, the concept of a minority is not necessarily numerical. Social and historical factors shape a group's consciousness of minority status

IN the West, the issue of minorities goes back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when the new or changing political boundaries of European nation-states subjected certain ethnic groups to the domination of other ethnic or national groups. Probably the most influential definition of the concept of "minority" is that first proposed in 1945 by the sociologist Louis Wirth, who wrote: "We may define a minority as a group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination."

By Wirth's definition, the existence of a minority implies that a corresponding majority group enjoys higher status and greater privileges; those holding minority status are excluded from full participation and are treated as, and consider themselves to be, "a people apart". To summarize, members of a minority group are "identifiably different", that is, characterized by observable traits that distinguish them from others in the same society; subject to differential treatment from others; and conscious of the discrimination they experience as members of the group.

The anthropologists Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris have proposed several modifications to Wirth's definition. Minority status, in their view, is inherited according to the descent rules of a society, in such a way that an individual is assigned to the minority group even when he or she does not manifest the minority's visible traits. For example, in the American racial system, having any known African-American ancestry has usually been sufficient to place an individual in the "Black" or "Negro" category. Minority status is thus something one is "born into", rather than something acquired later in life. Wagley and Harris also consider that minorities are generally endogamous, since they are normally prohibited from marrying into the dominant group. Such prohibitions have the effect of maintaining the boundaries between majority and minority, and by extension perpetuating the privileges of the majority. Note that what is at issue is not sexual contact between the two groups but rather descent and inheritance. Endogamy (marrying within one's own group) ensures that majority status is passed only to the legitimate children of majority members and so remains inaccessible to anyone not of that group.

While Wagley and Harris' formulation would apply well to many situations of majority-minority relations, it is far from universal in application. For one thing, their criterion of "endogamy" requires some qualification in the light of later research. While it is true that endogamy of the elite, privileged group serves to maintain its boundaries, minorities often marry into other minorities. In fact "intermarriage" between ethnic groups in the contemporary United States often concerns partners of different minority groups. More importantly, recent years have seen the emergence of many groups that see themselves as minorities and organize themselves as such but do not meet the criterion of inherited status or endogamy. We shall return later to the issue of whether, for example, women or homosexuals can properly be considered minorities.

More recent writers have given greater emphasis than did Wirth to the political domination exercised by the majority group. It is the greater access to and control of resources--access to health care, jobs, food, education, wealth--that allows one group to control the life chances of another. Put another way, it is the greater political power of the majority that allows it to discriminate against the minority, to treat its members in detrimental ways that may range from stereotyping to extermination. …

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