Sociologists study systems of racial and ethnic classification, which divide people into racial and ethnic categories that are implicitly or explicitly ranked on a scale of social worth. They study the origins of these racial and ethnic categories and their effect on life chances. Most biologists and social scientists have come to agree that race is not a biological fact. The reason is that parents from different racial categories can produce offspring. The offspring, by definition, are mixtures of the two categories and therefore cannot be placed in just one category.
While race has no basis in biology, it does have considerable social significance. Sociologists define race as a vast collectivity of people more or less bound together by shared and selected history, ancestors, and physical features. These people are socialized to think of themselves as a distinct group, and others regard them as such. In evaluating this definition the emphasis must be placed on selected.
It is the social significance assigned to sharing certain physical features believed to belong to certain broad categories of ancestors, such as Africans, Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans. The social significance of race is also a product of emphasizing or feeling connected to a his- tory shared by a certain broad category of ancestors, who were commonly forced by laws and other social practices to become socially distinct from other broad categories of ancestors.
Ethnicity refers to people who share, believe they share, or are believed by others to share a national origin; a common ancestry; a place of birth; distinctive concrete social traits (such as religious practices, style of dress, body adornments, or language); or socially important physical characteristics (such as skin color, hair texture, or body structure). Unlike race, which emphasizes physical features and geographic origin, ethnicity can be based on an almost infinite number of traits.
The social significance of race is also a product of emphasizing or feeling connected to a history shared by a certain broad category of ancestors, who were commonly forced by laws and other social practices to become socially distinct from other broad categories of ancestors.
Unlike race, which emphasizes physical features and geographic origin, ethnicity can be based on an almost infinite number of traits.
The racial and ethnic categories to which people belong are a product of three interrelated factors: chance, context, and choice. Chance is something not subject to human will, choice, or effort. We do not choose our biological parents, nor can we control the physical characteristics we inherit from them. Context is the social setting in which racial and ethnic categories are recognized, created, and challenged. Choice is the act of choosing from a range of possible behaviors or appearances. The choices one makes may emphasize or reject the behaviors and appearances that have come to be associated with a racial or ethnic group.
The premise of racial superiority lies at the heart of other rationalizations used by one group to dominate another. Sociologist Larry T. Reynolds (1992) observes that race, as a concept for classifying humans is a product of the 1700s, a time of widespread European exploration, conquest, and colonization that did not begin to subside until the end of World War II.
Racist ideology also supported Japan's annexation and domination of Korea, Taiwan, Karafuto and other Pacific islands prior to World War II. Both Japanese and Europeans used racial schemes to classify people they encountered; the idea of racial differences became the "cornerstone of self-righteous ideology," justifying their right by virtue of racial superiority to exploit, dominate, and even annihilate conquered peoples and their cultures.