Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Racism is a form of prejudice focused on race.

explanatory context

In the 1980s, two key texts in the United Kingdom addressed the issue of racism.


Cohen (1988, p. 14) argued that racism is not just skin deep. Racist discourses have never confined themselves just to body images. Names and modes of address, states of mind and living conditions, clothes and customs, every kind of social behaviour and cultural practice have been pressed into service to signify this or that racial essence.

In selecting these materials, racist codes are opportunistic. Those signs which do the most ideological working in linking and naturalising difference and domination are used, within a certain set of historical conditions. To link racism solely to visible appearance is to bracket out histoorical reality (Cohen, 1988, p. 14).


Racist imagery does not merely reflect, in a distorted form, observable ethnic attributes. To suggest it does is to provide racism with a common-sense rationale. On the contrary, racist constructs have an internal structure that cannot be deduced from, or reduced to, the empirical characteristics of the populations against which they are directed. (Cohen, 1988, p. .23)

Visibility is socially constructed and can change over time. (Cohen, 1988, p. 14) It is not so much through its exploitation of vsible difference as in what it renders invisible or comparable that racist ideology produces its effects.


The various forms of racism have their own histories and structure of meaning (Cohen, 1988, p. .15). Anti-Semitism and colour prejudice are distinctive modalities of racism.


Race is the object of racist discourse and has no meaning outside it; 'it is an ideological construct, not an empirical social category; as such it signifies a set of imaginary properties of inheritance which fix and legitimate real positions of social domination or subordination in terms of genealogies of generic difference' (Cohen, 1988, p. .23)

Ethnicity has no connotation of innate characteristic whether of superiority or inferiority. It is a myth of origins which does not imply a congenital density; unlike race, it refers to a real process of historical individuation—namely the linguistic and cultural practices through which a sense of collective identity or 'roots' is produced and transmitted from generation to generation, and is changed in the process. (Cohen, 1988, pp. 23–24)


The dynamic of ethnicity, grounded in history, cannot be separated from class struggle. Class struggle cannot be reduced to productive relations but also involves sexual and generational divisions of labour. Such dimensions may well become articulated through race and ethnicity. (Cohen, 1988, p. . 24)

Ethnicity does not necessarily connote race. (It may just function as a mode of class consciousness). (Cohen, 1988, p. . 24)

Race always implies ethnicity. It does so in two ways: (1) by reducing linguistic or cultural identity to biology; (2) by naturalising linguistic or cultural identity within a fixed hierarchy of 'social traits'. Thus ethnicity is racialised in either social or cultural terms. (Cohen, 1988, p. . 24)

Ethnicity and race are, in late 1988s, used almost interchangeably. This confusion leads to ethnicity being reified into a set of essentially defining traits and removed from concrete historical processes. Ethnicity becomes 'Jewishness', 'Irishness', 'Blackness', etc., which are abstract expressions of an eternal trans-historical identity. (Cohen, 1988, p. 24)

While these trans-historical traits can be used successfully in anti-racist work, e.g. positive images of Blackness, they rely on ultimately on biologism. The very foundation of racist reification of ethnicity that aims, for example, to separate 'Englishness' from the 'other England' of the immigrant. (Cohen, 1988, p. . 24) [I.e. the similarity of multiculturalism and new right racism, see Gilroy and Duffield.].

Ethnic hegemony involves a particular power elite claiming to represent an ethnic majority in such a way as to impose their own norms of language and culture on the rest of society as ideals or models to which all should aspire. (Cohen, 1988, p. 26).

Strategies of ethnic hegemony are not the sole prerogative of the ruling class. Other, more localised, power élites may operate in similar ways; a labour aristocracy may organise itself through a trade union movement in such a way as to substantiate its claim to speak for all workers, in amd through the very practices which discriminate against particular groups of immigrants, In this case racism will be given an economic rather than an ideological rationale; the appeal will be to defend jobs and living standards against cheap labour, rather than to protect the British way of life and moral standards against the 'barbarians at the gates'. (p. 26) [see summary of Duffield's critical analysis of foundary workers in the West Midlands.]

Different racist discourses are mobilised in the light of the prevailing strategies of class and ethnic hegemony. (Cohen, 1988, p. 26)

Institutionalised racism is nothing but the process of negotiation whereby a stategy of class and ethnic hegemony is co-ordinated and sustained, so that the racism of the dominant class becomes the dominant or common-sense form of racism in the society as a whole. (Cohen, 1988, p. . 26)

The concentration of Jewish or Black people in certain occupations, their treatment as second-class citizens, etc., is a function of hegemonic racism. It does not constitute them for all time as an 'underclass'. Such reifications provide positive readings of negative streotypes but worse, falsify the historical processes that produce them. (Cohen, 1988, p. . 27)


Gilroy (1987) argued that the core of racist reasoning is that blacks comprise a problem. In addition is the view that blacks are victims (non-thinking objects). This oscillation serves to naturalise 'race' and detach it from history. Racism is thus viewed as an external problem not an integral part of capitalism. [see also Cohen, 1988]

By defining 'race' and ethnicity as cultural absolutes, blacks themselves, and parts of the anti-racist movement risk endorsing the explanatory frameworks and political definitions of the new right. (Gilroy, 1987, p. 13)

Sociological writing on 'race relations' (Gabriel & Ben-Tovim, 1979) reflects the 'fault lines' (Craib, 1984) of sociology i.e. structure, meaning and culture. These tensions also appear in political writing on 'race' and racism. problems arise when in trying to bridge these spheres writers have 'resisted the idea that 'race' and class belong to separate spheres of experience with different epistemological and ontological valencies and used Marxian and neo-Marxian approaches to confront the question of historical agency posed by the relationship between 'race' and class.' (Gilroy, 1987, p. 15).

In the sociology of 'race relations', idealists of various political persuasions have studied racial meanings as an autonomous tradition of scientific enquiry (Banton & Harwood, 1975) or in an ideological instance which, entire of itself, 'intervenes only subsequently' if at all in the economic relations of British society (Gabriel & Ben-Tovim, 1979). On the other side, there are writers who have sought to reduce 'race' to the inherent effects of various structures —relations of production, and markets (Sivanandan, 1982; Rex, 1979). Between these poles... is a third tendency which has defined 'race' as a cultural phenomenon. This group has made 'race' into a synonym for ethnicity and a sign for the sense of separateness which endows groups with an exclusive, colective identity (Lawrence, 1982). For these writers, blacks do not live in the castle of their skin but behind the sturdy walls of discrete ethnic identitites. (Gilroy, 1987, p. 16).

Gilroy maintains that culture has a contribution to make but only if it is reclaimed as a materialist theory and linked to the complex relationship between race and class. (p. 17). What must be avoided is a view of culture that is linked to 'ethnic absolutism'.

Race and ethnicity must be untangled. Race is not essential and eternal.

'Race' is socially and politically constructed and elaborate ideological work is done to secure and maintain the different forms of 'racialization' which have characterised capitalist development.

The processes of 'race' and class formation are not identical. The former cannot be reduced to the latter. The emptiness of racial signifiers, the sense in which 'race' is meaningless, contains a warning that its political vitality and volatility may increase as the practices and ideologies which comprise it become less stable and more contradictory (Gilroy, 1987, p. 40).

Class analysis has helped to illuninate the historical development of racism. But Marxist class analysis must be viewed in relation to 'race' in the same way that it has in its application to 'overdeveloped' societies (i.e. the whole debate within Marxism) and not just applied in anachronistic ways. 'The working class must be appraised in terms of its colour and gender too. The potential of a unified working class must be addressed not assumed in simplistic applications of economic determinism to race. Class analysis must be modernised; the capital-labour distinction is inadequate' (Gilroy, 1987, p. 19).

Gilroy (1987, pp. 20–26) outlines three different approaches tolinking class and race. Briefly they are:

1. economics has primacy in determining the character of race politics. Blacks as underclass (Rex & Tomlinson, 1979) or sub-proletariat. Racial structuration is imposed by capital which needs racism for the sake of capital (Sinanandan, 1980). Struggles against racism are thus struggles against capitalism.

2. The anti-race relations position (Phizaclea & Miles, 1980; Miles, 1982), which denies biological races and thus critiques all uses of the concept 'race' as descriptive or analytic tool. Tends to think this will erase racism. 'Race' is regarded as an ideological effect and threatens class unity. They want race dissolved into class.

3. Race and class are fundamentally split and racism has no contact with class politics. The policy approach. Radical theorist of race and racism should produce critiques of official race policy and formulation of alternatives (Gabriel & Ben Tovim, 1979). Plausibility depends on (a) an idea of racism as 'popular democratic and divorced from class and (b) a positive evaluation of the capacity of state institutions. Even when positive steps are taken, there is a potential to slip into the very epistemological modes (of the new right) that are being challenged. Race relations legislation, multi-cultural education policies and racism awareness training are some of the favoured vehicles for accomplishing this transformation. Ben Tovim et al. (1981; 1979) identify the means of its elaboration in the 'hegemonic' activities of 'black para-professionals'. [This is precisely what Duffield is so opposed to.]

[Do Gilroy, Cohen, Duffield offer a fourth approach or are they divided? They all see class and race (and gender) as interrelated. They address hegemony. They see culture as important as an socio-historical mediator but not determinant or determined and fixed. All want to keep race and ethnicity separated. All are sceptical of multiculturalism and see it reflecting new racism. They all see racism as historical. This approach (encapsulating Gilroy, Duffield and Cohen) might be summed up by Gilroy's view that revolutionary potential lies with those groups whose collective existence is threatened. It is a specific reapplication of the notion of the new focus of class struggle (formerly seen as students, women, racial monorities) that has emerged in Marxist class analysis.

Gilroy argues that racism is a process. The issue is how 'race' as a distinct order of social phenomena relates to class.

The primary problem for analysis of racial antagonisms which occurs within the broader framework of historical materialism must be the manner in which racial meanings, solidarity and identities provide the basis for action. Different patterns of 'racial' activity and political struggle will appear in determinant historical conditions. They are not conceived as a straightforward alternative to class struggle at the level of economic analysis, but must be recognised to be potentially both an alternative to class consciousness at the political level and as a factor in the contingent processes in which classes are themselves formed. It may be felt, for example, that in Britain during the late 1980s 'race', whatever we may think of its ideological origins, provides a more potent means to organize and focus the grievances of certain inner-city populations than the languages of class politics. (Gilroy, 1987, p. 27)

Furthermore, he calls for the retention of race as an conceptual category:

Collective identities spoken through 'race', community and locality are, for all their spontaneity, powerful means to co-ordinate action and create solidarity.... The word 'radical' carries with it connotations of rootedness which, if the thrust of this book is accepted, are once again becoming highly significant for British political culture. 'Race' must be retained as an analytic category not because it corresponds to any biological or epistemological absolutes, but because it refers investigation to the power that collective identities acquire by means of their roots in tradition. These identities, in the forms of white racism and black resistance, are the most volatile political forces in Britain today. (Gilroy, 1987, p. 247)

analytical review

Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) defines racism as:

An ideological ethnocentric diseased set of beliefs that holds that one's own racial group is a distinct group superior to other groups that have been labeled as racially distinctive. Racism is based on well-rounded ignorance ("Don't confuse me with the facts unless they support my preconceived position"), viciousness, blind unshakable confidence, racial mythologies, and contradictory facts and beliefs. The belief that one's racial group is somehow superior to other groups leads, with the aid of stereotypes, to discrimination and prejudice.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines racism as:

The attributing of characteristics of inferiority to a particular racial category. Racism is a specific form of prejudice focused on race.

associated issues


related areas

See also


Cohen, P., 1988, 'The perversions of inheritance: studies in the making of multi-racist Britain', in Cohen and Bains (Eds.), 1988, Multi-Racist Britain, London, Macmillan, pp. 1–118.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Gilroy, P., 1987, There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, London, Hutchinson.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

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