Racial Disadvantage and
Ethnic Diversity in the
Marx's famous dictum that history is made by human beings but not under conditions that they choose is widely accepted by social scientists. Its attraction stems from the fact that it succinctly expresses the need to give due weight to both agency and structure. Social change is only possible because of human action but such action is in turn constrained by social forces. And yet when we examine research on race and ethnicity, we find that it tends either to highlight the structural forces which result in the social exclusion of particular racially defined groups or to celebrate the actions of human beings in sustaining distinct ethnic cultures. Marx's dictum seems to have been forgotten.
In the case of British Sociology, a particular framework has been dominant for much of the postwar period.This framework can be characterised as one of racial dualism, in which society is pictured as divided 'racially' into two groups — white and black — with researchers seeking to delineate and explain the disadvantages faced by black people. More recently, however, there has been a greater recognition that non-white people are not in the same situation, that there is significant ethnic diversity and that the actions of minority groups have resulted in significant social changes.
What this chapter seeks to do is to give due weight to both structure and agency by adopting a particular problematic for examining research on race and ethnicity in Britain.I have labelled this problematic 'racial disadvantage and ethnic diversity' (Pilkington, 2000). The term 'racial disadvantage' has been used in recognition of the fact that groups defined as non-white still face considerable disadvantages and that these stem at least partially from racism.The term 'ethnic diversity' has been used in recognition of the fact that groups defined racially as identical neither usually see themselves as sharing a common identity nor