Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, 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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Race refers to a species of plant or animal but in relation to the social world has been used controversially to categorise people on the basis of their physical (and sometimes cultural) characteristics.

explanatory context


analytical review

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

A socially defined category of people who share genetically transmitted physical characteristics.


Murji (2005, p. 290) in New Keywords writes:

Race is a politically charged and ambivalent word that has evaded precise definition. Derived in English from F race and It razza, it has meant a tribe or people of common stock, such as the German race, and denoted a sensibility, like the notion of the British people as an island race. In its most inclusive sense ‘‘race’’ denotes a class of being or a species in the plant or animal kingdoms. Problems arose when it was used to identify supposedly natural divisions within human populations. The idea of ‘‘race’’ in this sense has had wide and damaging consequences due to the view that groups possess fixed traits and particular intellectual and physical characteristics. This led to a belief in racial purity, innate racial difference, and natural racial hierarchies, and informed projects of slavery, apartheid, colonialism, empire, and genocide. Although the idea of race is usually regarded as a ‘‘Western’’ invention, evidence from China indicates the existence of racial taxonomies before contact with Europeans, and a faith in the innate superiority of the ‘‘yellow race.’’ Chinese conceptions of race worked on the semantic similarity of Ch zu, meaning both ‘‘lineage’’ and ‘‘race,’’ and conflated identity and ancestry with territory and biology (Dikotter, 1992), indicating the sinewy line between racism, nationalism, and patriotism.

Ethnology and anthropology in the C18 and C19 saw race as coded in and on the body and believed that science could uncover its patterns. Basic forms of scientific racism named three races, Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid, but a bewildering variety of racial systems and groupings has been produced over time. These were discredited by C20 science, which provides evidence that there is more genetic variation within so-called racial groups than between them. Today sports is one field where the search for ‘‘racial’’ differences continues – those who assert that such differences are biologically and not socially based claim they are violating a race taboo. The anti-racist slogan ‘‘there is only one race – the human race’’ has been employed as a counter-weight to ideas of racial divisions within humankind.

The key question is which human differences are regarded as significant ‘‘racial’’ markers. Race thinking combines some observable physical differences – skin color, hair texture, facial features, and skull shape – with what lies below the surface – blood, bones, and brain size. Race thinking has gone beyond physical difference to see race as a sensibility, making racial demarcation an aesthetic as well as a physical boundary. For example, in C19 China the fine races (the yellows and the whites) were believed to be wise and born to rule, while the mean races (blacks, browns, and reds) were thought of as stupid and degenerate (Dikotter, 1992). Social scientists have tried to study race relations. Some put ‘‘race’’ into quotation marks to highlight its constructed and ideological nature and to underline that it has no real biological referent. It is, however, socially and politically significant and has real effects because inequalities are reproduced through practices of racism. The signification of race through social practices is called racialization – various processes by which real or imagined characteristics are used to identify a group as a ‘‘racial’’ collectivity, and cultural, political, or ideological situations where race thinking is invoked. This race-making is an instance of a racial essentialism that treats members of the ‘‘same’’ group as if they share some common essence, and overlooks differences within them while understating similarities between ‘‘racial’’ groups.

Fears about miscegenation and race-mixing have been prominent in the delineation of racial and sexual boundaries. The products of ‘‘mixed’’ racial relationships have been called many things, such as mulatto, metisse, coffee-colored, cafe´ au lait, and dusky (applied to the actresses Lena Horne and Halle Berry, for example). Hybridity has been viewed as a monstrous form of mongrelization, weakening the stock and the gene pool, but also as a harbinger of a new intercultural, post-racial melting pot. In child-adoption policy it has been maintained that ‘‘mixed’’ children are really black, because they are regarded as raced. Concerns about loss of racial identity led to so-called same-race adoption policies and a limit on transracial or transcultural adoption. This has since fallen out of favor, partly because of confusion about what the ‘‘same race’’ means (a similar problem occurs with the racial matching of interviewer and interviewee in social research). Mixed race, which replaced terms such as ‘‘half-caste,’’ itself became problematic because it implied the existence of pure races in the first place. There is now a preference for ‘‘mixed heritage,’’ and one example of a mixed-heritage neologism is ‘‘Caublinasian,’’ which the golfer Tiger Woods uses to signal his mixed Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian origins.

Race is an object of governmental, academic, and everyday knowledge and scrutiny. Official classifications such as censuses both delineate what counts as race, and count by race. The changing categories of the US Census over time reveal an obsessive concern with demarcating all the ‘‘non white others.’’ The latest census indicates 63 different ‘‘ethno-racial’’ possibilities. According to the 2000 survey one-third of the US population now consists of minority races, while some 15 million are ‘‘other.’’ In spite of the problematic nature of categorization and counting, census and other data on racial inequalities in housing, health, education, employment, and criminal justice can highlight the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination, though there is disagreement about the extent to which racism, class, or something else accounts for these inequalities. Spatial residential segregation and differential educational achievement between ‘‘races’’ have prompted debates about a black underclass and the relationship between race and intelligence. Census data have been used to promote policies such as affirmative action and contract compliance (though critics claim this is positive discrimination and preferential treatment) and to provide a benchmark against which social change can be measured. For these reasons the terminology of race, racial groups, and belonging has acted as a source of identification and political mobilization for redress against inequalities and unfair practices.

Race matters because it is seen and treated as a key marker of identity, nationhood, and community. Race can determine or influence how people see themselves, how others define them, and the groups they are seen to belong to. Terms such as ‘‘black history,’’ ‘‘the black experience,’’ or ‘‘Asian culture’’ treat race as a fact of everyday life. Race and racial identity are invoked in guidelines on writing that encourage journalists to consider how issues cut across racial lines. Academic and professional associations also have codes on appropriate language and style to be used when referring to racial minorities. Race does not, however, always have to be explicitly named and can be coded linguistically through certain words – ‘‘the ghetto,’’ ‘‘immigrant,’’ ‘‘street crime,’’ ‘‘mugging,’’ ‘‘wilding,’’ and ‘‘gangsta culture,’’ for example. The use of racial profiling by the police in the US is another example of the way in which race and crime are associated. ‘‘Ethnicity’’ is often preferred to ‘‘race’’ because the former is a cultural category, while race has often been an imposed biological categorization. In practice, race and ethnicity have been mixed up with each other and with nationality, citizenship, religion, history, language, culture, and identity. In 1998 the American Anthropological Association (AAA) stated that ‘‘race’’ should immediately be replaced by more correct terms, including ‘‘ethnicity’’ and ‘‘ethnic origins.’’ The AAA urged the US Census to drop the use of the word ‘‘race.’’

Race is often related to skin color, especially to colors that are ‘‘not white,’’ a fetishism that has been called ‘‘epidermalization.’’ Chief among these visual properties has been blackness. The English language is full of words that use ‘‘black’’ to signal menace or threat, or in a derogatory way: blackening, black look, blackleg, black mark, a black lie, black deed, blackmail, etc. The racial significance of the word ‘‘black’’ in such cases is contested by those who maintain that imagined associations have been used to promote political correctness. Thus, in the UK in the 1980s it was suggested that such words, and nursery rhymes like ‘‘baa baa black sheep,’’ were being banned because of their ‘‘racial’’ overtones. Blackness and the black experience have been given expression in music such as jazz, blues, soul, gospel, r&b, reggae, rap, and hip hop – the earlier forms were called race music and race records, and current usage groups these together as ‘‘music of black origin.’’

Concerns about race and representation are prominent in the ‘‘Blaxploitation’’ movies, in literature, and in the black aesthetic and black arts movements. Blackness has in some ways been appropriated and commodified in fashion, advertising, and contemporary culture, sometimes in ways that suggest racial or bodily fetishism, and prompted concerns about racial stereotypes, and representations of ‘‘the other,’’ particularly black masculinities. Before that, negrophilia among the Paris avant-garde of the 1920s valued blackness through exoticizing its associations with Africa and with primitivism. Blackness can also be shared imaginatively, where young white people employ the language and ‘‘street style’’ of rap and hip-hop culture, or when a likeness is being drawn between the subordinated position of blacks and particular white groups. For instance, in Roddy Doyle’s novel The Commitments (1990), and in the film based on it, a young white man says: ‘‘The Irish are the niggers of Europe . . . Say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud.’’

Blackness has been embraced as a collective identity and a mode of organization and resistance in anti-colonial struggles, by groups such as the Black Panthers, and through the famous slogan ‘‘Black is beautiful,’’ which also positively valued African styles and clothing, such as the Afro hairstyle and dreadlocks. In the 1960s race riots in theUS and a burgeoning civil rights movement went along with Black Power and black consciousness ideologies, through which blackness was no longer considered shameful but reclaimed as a source of pride and communal solidarity. Changes in terminology and self-identification are well illustrated by Henry Louis Gates (1994: 201): ‘‘The ‘Personal Statement’ for my Yale application began: ‘My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro, and I am black.’ ’’ For a time, ‘‘black’’ also became a shared political term in Britain that encompassed south Asians and sometimes people of Arabic and Chinese origins too, along with African- Caribbeans, when it was argued that being black captured the similar experiences of all of them of both British colonialism and contemporary racism. This inclusivity has fragmented with greater emphasis upon difference and internal class and gender divisions. In the US, hyphenated identities such as African-American and Asian-American (itself the product of a conscious decision to find a better term than the earlier ‘‘Oriental’’) are common. In spite of manifest differences between and within subordinated or subaltern groups, it has been argued that they can employ essentialism strategically to oppose racism.

Afrocentric ideologies seek to restore hidden histories of African civilizations (‘‘Black Athena’’: Bernal, 1987) and to promote positive images of and role models for black African communities. Race and religion are linked through groups such as the Nation of Islam, which has been attacked for promoting a chauvinist cultural nationalism based on separatism and autonomy. Others take a cosmopolitan approach that aims to develop and affirm different bases of collective identity beyond race, based on transnational, intercultural, and diasporic ‘‘Black Atlantic’’ (Gilroy, 1993a) histories of modernity. Proponents of such ideas sometimes also call for deracialization and for ways of imagining ‘‘raceless’’ futures.

‘‘Nigger’’ (like terms such as ‘‘kaffir’’ in South Africa) is usually considered an offensive and derogatory term used by white supremacists and slave owners. Although its long history as the ‘‘nuclear bomb’’ of racial epithets has kept it out of mainstream culture, its use by some black people and by comedians and film makers was noted some time ago: ‘‘Nigger. . . is now frequently employed by the more race-conscious blacks, but only among themselves’’ (Johnson, 1977). Its wider use and popularization are mainly associated with hip-hop culture (for example, in the full name of the group NWA, ‘‘Niggers With Attitude’’). Kennedy (2002) argues that its meaning is open to change and varies according to context, though others maintain that ‘‘the n-word’’ has a tainted history that still evokes memories of slavery and racial segregation.

Reflecting changes in the use of language, nowadays in the USA ‘‘black’’ and ‘‘African- American’’ are heard alongside, or have been replaced by ‘‘people of color’’ and among feminists, ‘‘women of color.’’ These provide umbrella terms uniting people who might be divided by conventional ‘‘racial’’ groupings. It also values color rather than denigrating it. In South Africa ‘‘colored’’ is applied to mixed-race people and not to blacks as such. Color and pigmentation are frequently linked in racial hierarchies that value lightness. In parts of Latin America people are said to be able to distinguish 9 distinct hair colors and 15 textures, along with 13 named shades of skin color from ‘‘lechoso’’ (milky white) to ‘‘morado’’ (purply black). Terms such as the ‘‘color line’’ (which W. E. B Du Bois regarded as the problem of the twentieth century), ‘‘color prejudice and discrimination,’’ the ‘‘color problem’’ (‘‘The time has come to admit there is a color problem in our midst,’’ The Times, September 4, 1958), a ‘‘color bar,’’ the ‘‘color question,’’ and ‘‘color consciousness’’ are some of the ways in which race and color have been associated. So-called ‘‘color-blind policies’’ are in practice often highly racialized and entail reducing race to color.

Though white is itself a color, ‘‘people of color’’ does not include whites. Because whiteness often remains ‘‘unseen’’ in racial terms, whites have been described as ‘‘uncolored people.’’ ‘‘White’’ often connotes qualities that are the converse of ‘‘blackness,’’ such as purity, cleanliness, virginity, and innocence. Reflecting the hierarchy of lightness, some beauty products offer the promise of lighter complexions, and dangerous skin-bleaching products are sold illegally. Whiteness can also indicate paleness/colorlessness and be associated with pallor, sickliness, and death, as for the Chinese in the C19. In some cases, as in TV police shows, ‘‘Caucasian’’ stands in for ‘‘white,’’ even though properly applied ‘‘Caucasian’’ should include Indians too. Most of the time, however, ‘‘white’’ is treated as the norm from which the difference of all ‘‘others’’ is measured. The category ‘‘white’’ has stayed almost unchanged and virtually unqualified in the US Census since 1850. This is notable because whiteness has been an unstable and shifting designation, as when Slavs and Mediterraneans were treated as a race apart (Jacobson, 1998); when in the eC20 US courts ruled that the Japanese were not members of any branch of the white race; and when the Irish have been inferiorized, denigrated, and simianized in racial terms. In Europe, campaigns against Jewish migration in the C19 claimed that Jewishness was a hereditary and irremovable quality of blood and that Jews were an alien race, associated with crime, disease, and perversion. More recently, ‘‘white’’ Eastern Europeans seeking asylum and refugee status have met some similar treatment. As this suggests, whiteness is subject to selective racialization. It is not a simple matter of skin color but one of changing processes of social and political classification. Similarly, membership of the ‘‘yellow race’’ has been flexible and expanded to include the Vietnamese at times. South and east Asians have been racialized differentially, sometimes through gendered conceptions of effeminacy. Whites who seek to undermine the privileges of whiteness may be called, and may call themselves, race traitors.

Class has been racialized when lower-class whites have been called ‘‘white trash,’’ and race associated with a sense of breeding and refinement. Fears about degeneration and race suicide in the eC20 were evident in the eugenics movement, which promoted ideas of racial and sexual hygiene and the survival of the fittest. A belief in the master race (herrenvolk) aimed to breed racially pure Aryans, and led to the extermination of millions of Jews and Gypsies in the Holocaust. There are still many active neo-Nazi, anti- Semitic, racist, and fascist white supremacy organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan. ‘‘Racism’’ is a quite recent, C20 word that has been widely applied. In theory and in practice there is more than one form of racism, indicating the adaptability and durability of racial theories. Racisms range from the grossest practices of genocide and slavery, apartheid and separate development (the bantustans) to the denial of citizenship and social rights and to everyday harassment. Immigration laws and citizenship exemplify institutional racism, which refers to persistent, systemic, and sometimes covert racism rather than individual prejudices based upon particular psychological traits. In recent times a new racism or cultural racism has emerged based upon cultural distinctiveness and the defense of ‘‘a way of life,’’ rather than hierarchy and the inferiorization of others. This has also been called postmodern racism and racism without races, and illustrates continual discursive connections between race, culture, and nation. There is a question about whether Zionism is a form of racism (as a 1975 UN resolution decreed), and whether race and racism are what underlies contemporary Islamaphobia and Hindu nationalism.

Anti-racist measures in the UK include a Race Relations Act that seeks to outlaw discrimination, and a Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to enforce the law. Race in the Act means a group defined by color, nationality, and ethnic or national origins. Other legislation penalizes incitement to racial hatred, while in the US and in mainland Europe there are laws against hate speech and hate crimes. Multicultural policies can be a means of redress against historic racism, including recognition of the rights of first-nations peoples and the restitution of land rights. Many public and private bodies express a commitment to diversity and equal opportunities and undertake training courses in race or cultural awareness. Critics regard the existence of state-funded anti-racist bodies like the CRE as proof of a professional race relations lobby/industry. This is reminiscent of a remark on the mC20 idea of a race man: ‘‘A ‘Race Man’ was somebody who always kept the glory and honor of his race before him. . .People made whole careers of being ‘Race’ men and women. They were champions of the race’’ (Hurston, 1942). ‘‘Racially inauthentic’’ blacks and Asians are variously called ‘‘Uncle Toms,’’ or ‘‘coconuts’’ or ‘‘choc-ice’’ (brown or dark on the outside, white on the inside). The idea of race has been tainted, discredited, valorized, reclaimed, and contested. It retains positive and negative features that are both anachronistic and contemporary.

associated issues


related areas

See also


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

Murji, 2005, 'Race' in Tony Bennett, T., Grossberg, L. and Morris, M. (Eds.) 2005, New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London, Wiley-Blackwell).

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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