Race and ethnicity

The term race refers to the division of living things according to a series of shared physical and biological attributes . In the case of a human race , this is a social construction in which human populations are divided, under the assumption that a group of people has physical attributes that unite them.

As for ethnicity , it refers to a group of people who maintain a social bond as a result of a shared culture, language, religion or origin.

DefinitionIt is a categorization of human populations based on physical and biological attributes.It is a human group in which its members share a culture, religion, language, geographical origin and / or origin.
  • It implies a genetic inheritance.
  • Classification of a person as a member of a race does not imply that they agree.
  • Observable genetic markers (phenotypic traits) are used to divide races.
  • It is believed that a breed maintains its attributes without changing over time.
  • It is a social construction.
  • Ethnic identity is the product of a socialization process.
  • Its members are united by a shared feeling of belonging.
  • It manifests itself in behaviors and cultural expressions.
  • It is dynamic, there may be changes in the individuals and ethnic groups to which they belong.
  • It is a social construction.
Determining elementsPhysical characteristics and genetic inheritance.Common origin (geographic or by descent) and shared cultural practices.
Main attributesSkin color, hair type, face shape, region of origin.Geographical origin, religion, dress code, language, dialects, common history.
  • Negroide.
  • Caucasian.
  • Mongoloid.
  • Australoide
  • Capoid.
  • Aymara and Quechua (several countries in South America).
  • Misquita (Honduras and Nicaragua).
  • Náhuatl (Mexico).
  • Berber (North Africa).
  • Samoa (Samoa).
  • Croatian (Croatia).

What is race?

To speak of a race is to refer to a social division that is made of different human groups according to physical characteristics .

The term race is a social construction . This has been used since the Middle Ages and means ‘people who share a common descent’. As early as the 18th century, the race began to include the grouping and division of people according to their phenotypic (observable) characteristics.

At present, both in the social and natural sciences, the use of the word “race” is controversial. Its function as a way of establishing a division of human populations has no scientific value. This is because the attributes that separate one race from another, at the genetic level, are not well defined, and their selection is usually arbitrary.

Even if there are phenotypic variations between individuals, genetic diversity (and its causes) is a complex issue. Races as scientific concepts are not capable of containing the complexity of these genetic phenomena.

When a group of people is categorized as a “race,” it is generally done to differentiate between human populations and in the treatment of individuals belonging to a race.

Breed characteristics

  • It is mainly based on observable physical differences in people (phenotypic attributes).
  • These differences are the result of and are transferred by genetic inheritance.
  • It is common to be confused with the idea of ethnicity .
  • Skin color, hair type and face shape are some of the most used attributes in its categorization.
  • It is assumed that the attributes of a race as a whole tend not to change over time.

Race as a social construction

The idea of race is largely a social construction. It is a product of the categorization that is made between human groups, established mainly through phenotypic differences (physical and observable).

It is also common to designate as a race, or racial group, a population or group of people who share an ethnic group (culture, nationality, religion) or who have the same geographical origin.

Thus, the definition of a race changes according to the social context, as well as throughout different historical moments.

Why divide human groups into races?

One of the main reasons for dividing humans into races has been to establish discriminatory policies and segregation, in order to legitimize the dominance of one human group over another.

In any case, race as a scientific category of analysis in the human context has lost value. This does not mean that it is not practical to establish divisions between human groups.

For example, studying different ethnic groups for social / anthropological analysis, or studying populations that share genetic attributes for medical reasons, are valid scientific reasons for categorizing human populations.

Historical factors that influenced racial classification

  • The European maritime and commercial expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries led to the meeting of large human groups on different continents.
  • Migration, both forced and voluntary , resulted in the differentiation between ethnic groups and individuals with different physical characteristics.
  • Colonialism and ethnocentrism led to the creation of hierarchies between people of different origins.
  • The slavery that accompanied the colonization of America was markedly racial.

Classification of the races of Carolus Linnaeus

The Swedish physician, zoologist and botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) proposed that human beings were divided into 4 subspecies or races based on the place of origin and the skin color of the people: the americanus , asiáticus , africanus and the europeanus .

For Linnaeus, each of these races had particular characteristics, favoring the Europeanus race For example, among the behaviors attributed to the Africanus were that they were negligent and capricious. In contrast, the Europeanus were gentle and guided by the law.

Johann F. Blumenbach’s Breed Classification

At the end of the 18th century, the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) divided human populations into 5 different families or racial types, namely: Caucasian, Malay, American, Ethiopian (Negroid), and Mongoloid.

Samuel Morton’s Cranial Study

In the 19th century, the physician and naturalist Samuel Morton (1799-1851), made a study in craniology, specifically with the analysis of the size of human skulls from different parts of the world.

According to their research, the total brain volume of Caucasians was greater than that of Africans. Among his conclusions was that the size of the brain was proportional to the intellectual capacity of each race.

However, later on (even until a few years ago) there would be debates about the possible biases that affected the methodology and results of Morton’s studies.

Race and eugenics during the 19th and 20th centuries

At the end of the 19th century and for much of the 20th century, different positions that proposed racial and ethnic discrimination were based on practices such as eugenics.

This practice was aimed at improving or cleansing the human species. Eugenics relied on biology, particularly genetics, and established that behaviors and differences between different races were the result of biological inheritance.

This current would serve as a support from science to racist ideologies. For example, as in Nazi Germany, eugenics promoted the idea of ​​a superior and pure race, promoting the murder and sterilization of those racial groups that were considered inferior.

Contributions to the study of the races of Theodosious Dobzhansky

The Ukrainian-American biologist and geneticist Theodosious Dobzhansky (1900-1975) proposed that races are not static, being capable of showing changes. For this biologist, the definition of race depends on the categories used to analyze it and the scientific methodology used.

Dobzhansky considered that although races exist, these are constructions that help to understand biological phenomena, and that they do not have a scientific character to establish arbitrary (social) divisions between human beings.

Human races and their relationship with genetics

According to biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin (1929-), approximately 85% of genetic variations in human beings occur regardless of a person’s ethnic, geographical or cultural origin.

This means that between a person classified as “white” and another as “black”, the existing genetic variation is not greater than that between two people of the same race. That is, there is no specific genetic trace in a human population that differentiates it from another.

The distinctive physical traits of populations that come from different regions are the result of the remaining 10% -5% of the genetic content. These traits are a consequence of the evolution and adaptation of different human groups to different environmental conditions.

For Lewontin, genetic differences in humans are not a matter of differences between human populations, but between human individuals.

What is a cline?

In biology and genetics, a cline refers to the gradual change that occurs in specific characteristics of a species, caused by environmental conditions (geographic spaces).

A clina is expressed in the genetic adaptation that occurs an individual of a certain species to a habitat.

Example of cline in humans

An example of two clines that adapted to the environment is seen in skin pigmentation in humans.

In general terms, the genetic adaptation to life near the equator, where there is greater exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, stimulated that the skin of humans near that region will be pigmented in such a way that it has greater resistance to these rays, resulting in a darker skin tone.

On the other hand, human populations that settled farther from the equator, have gradually less pigmentation, resulting in a lighter skin tone. In this way, people who live far from the Equator can better absorb vitamin D, which is synthesized with exposure to sunlight.

Race and racism

The racism is the belief that members of a race possess certain characteristics or qualities that make them superior to another .

The division of human groups into races was and has been influenced by positions that are not limited to the scientific field. The different races have been categorized according to a social and cultural value, as inferior or superior.

This has resulted in inequity, segregation and slavery, in addition to founding extremist positions and promoting racism.

Learn more about the Difference between prejudice, racism and discrimination .

Learn more about the Difference between racism and xenophobia .

What is an ethnic group?

An ethnic group is a human group in which its members share a common origin and a sociocultural bond .

The members of an ethnic group generally share a common language, culture, religious practices and / or habits. It is also possible that they share physical characteristics, thanks to their genealogical ancestry (common ancestors).

The word ethnic comes from the Greek ethnos and means ‘people who live together, tribe or nation’, and from the suffix –ia which means ‘action or quality’. That is, according to the origin of the word, an ethnic group represents the shared identity of a group of people who live together or form a tribe or nation.

Ethnicity as a concept is a social construct (product of the human being) and involves a great variety of aspects. The members of an ethnic group share a bond and organize around it. Thus, the existing similarities promote union within an ethnic group.

This dynamic is also manifested in the case of differences, on which ethnic groups are separated from each other. It is worth mentioning that these differences have a subjective element and depend largely on who observes them.

As cultural habits and elements constantly change, the traits that define and separate one ethnic group from another are also changing.

Characteristics of an ethnic group

  • It is based on the common origin of a group of people.
  • It is expressed in behavior, habits, traditions, religion, culture, etc.
  • It involves the idea of ​​a shared bond, which forms an ethnic identity.
  • It is dynamic, the characteristics of an ethnic group are adaptable.

Ethnic identity

The ethnic identity is the feeling of belonging to an ethnic group or ethnic group that an individual possesses. It is a key aspect in terms of socializing a person and feeling part of a group.

The existence of different ethnic groups implies the formation of ethnic identity. When different ethnic groups interact, they recognize the differences that exist with the other groups. In the same way, its members recognize the similarities that unite them to their own ethnic group.

In a society, ethnic identity can be promoted voluntarily or involuntarily. The education or establishment of a community, the construction of national symbols or myths about a people, are voluntary ways of promoting ethnic identity.

If a population establishes a stronger bond of union and identity over its ethnic group as a result of a process of discrimination or segregation, caused by another group, this is a way of involuntarily strengthening ethnic identity .

Ethnicity and ethnicity

While an ethnic group represents a group or human population, ethnicity refers to the characteristics that each of these groups possesses and by means of which they are classified.

The word ethnic group began to be used in the academic sphere in the second half of the 20th century, with the development of the study of ethnicity and the formation of various social identities. Some of the most important approaches that attempt to explain the phenomenon of ethnicity are the primordialist, instrumental, and constructivist approaches.

Primordial approach

According to this approach, members of a cultural group are united thanks to a primordial essence and the existence of a type of ethnic loyalty.

Ethnicity is seen as a result of biological inheritance (kinship), where people with whom a bond is shared tend to support each other. This is due to a kind of basic or primordial evolutionary adaptation that allows members of the same ethnic group to recognize each other.

The primordialist approach also considers that geographic proximity and having a shared culture and habits promote cooperation among the members that make up an ethnic group.

Instrumental approach

Regarding the instrumental approach, ethnicity is a product built for a particular purpose .

Different interest groups within an ethnic group create their ethnic identity through symbols such as historical myths, traditions, shared values, etc.

These symbols function as instruments and references for people to feel part of an ethnic group. Thanks to this, it is possible to appeal to a past that was shared by the ancestors of the current members of the group.

To a large extent, ethnicity has a utility value and is used to create identities, many times, similar to certain elites or power groups.

Constructivist approach

In the constructivist approach, ethnicity is a consequence of human interaction between groups and also with the context.

Various characteristics are emphasized in order to establish differences with groups with whom one interacts. In the same way, the similarities that the group members themselves share are pointed out.

The existence of relationships between different ethnic groups is what allows them to be built. As in this approach the ethnic group finds meaning in the interaction between different ethnic groups, it is in constant construction, so the elements that make up an ethnic group are dynamic and change over time.

Ethnicity and ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism occurs when the members of an ethnic group maintain the belief that their ethnicity, culture or traditions, and other social elements, have a higher value than other ethnic groups .

Ethnocentrism is not always an explicit way of discriminating or belittling another ethnic group. It can happen without a negative intention. A key aspect is that an individual or group observes reality from their point of view, without regard to the point of view of another group.

Most people at some point commit ethnocentric acts, since it is sometimes difficult to understand the reality of other human groups.

See also: Prejudices and stereotypes: what are they, differences, types and examples

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