SOCI 210: Sociological perspectives

Race & ethnicity

  1. European colonialism
  2. Origins of racial &
    ethnic categories
  3. Prejudice, inequality,
    & racism
  4. Theoretical tradition 2:
    conflict theory
  5. Group discussion

Content warning

The slides in this lecture contain some disturbing images, including racial stereotypes and images of Nazi scientific instruments. Images like these have been used to justify and propagate racist institutions and further prejudice, violence, and genocide.

I include these images to help understand the historical origins of contemporary racial categories. They serve as examples of the visual schemas and methods that were commonplace among Europeans during the Colonial and Enlightenment eras. I believe it is important to be able to examine such images in order to critique and dismantle racial and ethnic prejudices, cultures, and institutions today.

European colonialism

Terra Nullius

  • View of land without settlement or active cultivation as empty
  • Language of conquest becomes language of discovery
    New World; Age of Discovery; Explorer
Photograph. Frame is filled with lush tropical greenery, as in a jungle

Manifest destiny

  • Term specific to United States, but ideology widespread
  • Colonized land is “culturally” empty
  • Duty to “uncivilized” people to teach about true religion and proper society
  • Characterized by Europeans as a burden or responsibility
Painting of a light-skinned European missionary in a pith helmet attending to an apparently sick dark-skinned child. Jesus stands glowing as a ghost behind the missionary with his hand on the missionary's shoulder

European colonialism

19th century drawings of five ape skeletons (gibbon, orangutang, chimpanzee, gorilla, human).


  • Conceptualization of non-European populations as less than human
  • Environmental determinism
  • Justifies both terra nullius and manifest destiny
19th century map of central Africa labeled 'a map of the route of the emin pasha relief expidition through Africa'. Prominent in the map is 'Congo Free State (independent)'

Geographical boundaries

  • Colonial powers viewed geographical delineation as primary
  • Not common in much of the world
  • Boundaries used to frame discourse both between colonial powers and between colonizer/colonized

Legacies of European colonialsim

Destruction of cultures/societies

  • Genocide
    Entire populations singled out and killed
    Cultural frameworks systematically destroyed
  • Internalization of colonial ideologies
    Ideologies of colonization became accepted (to varying degrees) by colonized cultures

Indigenous displacement

  • Populated land claimed by settlers
    Existing nations forcibly displaced or replaced
    Violently, formally, or informally
  • Complicated by settler struggles for independence from colonial metropoles
    Simultaneous fight against colonial control and complicity in colonial domination

Legacies of European colonialsim


  • Modern understanding of race
    Global slave trade made possible by and supported colonialism
    Contemporary racial categories defined by colonial European thought


  • Many “standard” modern institutions emerged in a colonial context
    Legal frameworks (e.g. property rights)
    Trade (domestic and international)

Legacies of European colonialsim

Current colonial presence in Canada

  • Continued British rule
    Minimal real control, but symbolic and some de facto power
  • Violence against indigenous populations
    Violent conflicts and disease killed large numbers of people living in Canada before European conquest
    Continued explicit and implicit violence
  • First Nations displacement
    Existing nations forced to cede territory through conquest and (often reneged) treaty
  • First Nations sovereignty struggles
    Continued view as subordinate and illegitimate
  • Cultural indoctrination
    Widespread prejudice toward indigenous practices
    Residential schools

Legacies of European colonialsim

Indigenous (non-colonial) territories in Turtle Island (North America)

A map of Turtle Island (North America), superimposed with a great many overlapping territories, each labeled with a different Indigenous people, nation, or group

This map is a work in progress
For more information visit

of racial
& ethnic categories

Stylized illustration showing a sheet of paper labeled 'RACE' with diagrams of three human figures of different tones with illegible labels. The paper is being fed into a shredder, and the shreds that are emerging form abstracted DNA double helices.

17th and 18th century Europe

European enlightenment

Emphasis on taxonomic descriptions

  • Hierarchically structured categorizations

Emphasis on naturalistic classification

  • Differentiation resulting from observable physical contexts

Catalogue of different human ‘species’, by Josia Nott (1854)

Inconsistent definitions

Colonial enterprises and Enlightenment thought led to the emergence of formalized (and inconsistent) definitions of “race”

Historically, highly variable and inconsistent, but based mainly on phenotype and/or ancestry

19th century woodcut illustration of three human skulls. Faint scripted labels indicate the skulls presumed origins

From Dr. Prichard's Natural history of man (1843)

(physical description)

  • Skin type; skeletal structure; hair form; facial proportions; …


  • Polygenism:
    theory that different subspecies of human emerged from different geographies
  • Natural selection of race:
    theory that natural races emerge from categorically different (and geographically located) selective forces

Example: Nazi racialization

Racial inheritance precisely delineated

(See also racial hypodescent in the United States and “Indian status” in Canada)

Chart describing Nazi “Nuremberg Laws” defining Jewish racial inheritance (1935)

Racialized physical criteria

(In cases of ambiguity, physical definition of“Jewishness” prevailed)

Nazi instrument used for measuring facial features

Inconsistent definitions

Failures of biological definitions of race:

Neither phenotype nor genotype can account for race

  • Much more variety within any category of humans than between them
  • Huge variety in human biology, but no sharp divisions

Historically, no consistent defintions

  • Racial categories and criteria differ substantially depending on time and place
  • The most consistent aspect of racial definitions is that they tend to support a society's dominant power structures

Current (strong) consensus among biologists and physical anthropologists is that there is no empirical basis for race as a biological reality

Social construction of race

Race as social construct

  • If race is not biological, does that mean race is not real?
  • Race as a social rather than biological category
  • Racial classification affects people’s experiences, behavior, and perceptions

Racial categorization is

  • Changes to racial schema are slow
    Connection to ethnicity and community
    Perpetuated by structural inequality
    Use as an administrative category by governments (and social scientists)

Racial categorization is

  • Dramatic influence on lived experience

Social construction of race


  • Identification with a certain cultural, linguistic, religious, or national heritage
  • Focus on inheritance of culture, traditions, history, and beliefs

Ethnicity versus race

  • Tightly connected—distinction is fuzzy at best
  • Race frequently defined socially in terms of physical characteristics (despite problems with that definition)
  • Race tends to be defined externally (at least initially) while ethnicity tends to be defined internally
  • Racial boundaries often sharper, more difficult to cross

Prejudice, inequality,
& racism

Racial and ethnic identity

  • Race, ethnicity, and nationality are important aspects of many people’s identities
  • Define ties to a community, sets of traditions, and shared culture and past
  • True for racial categories, despite their oppressive
    origins and social ascription
  • Complex relationship between internal culture and external hierarchies

Racial and ethnic identity

Co-defined with power structures

  • Race, ethnicity, and nationality are often employed in the definition and maintenance of power relations
  • Power relations between groups
  • Power relations between people

State oppression

Some modes of formal state oppression

States may employ racial, ethnic, and national categorization
to justify formal policies of dominance

Mass homicide

  • Holocaust
  • First Nations, Inuit, Métis
  • Congo Free State


  • South African Apartheid
  • American slavery and “Jim Crow” laws
  • Suffrage (voting) restrictions


  • Acadian expulsion
  • First Nations, Inuit, Métis
  • Jews (1492) and Moriscos (1609) from Spain


  • Residential schools
  • Colonial religious conversion
  • Banning behavior/dress
    (e.g. Loi 21)

Informal discrimination

Some modes of non-state oppression

Racial, ethnic, and national oppression exists outside of formal legal frameworks (but may still be supported by legal frameworks)

Physical violence

  • Increased violence against racialized groups
  • Selective enforcement of laws
    Police violece
    “Stand your ground” laws

Unequal opportunity

  • Education
  • Employment and wages
  • Housing (redlining)
  • Credit

Everyday perceptions

  • Discrimination in treatment and expectations
  • “Status characteristics”
  • Self-perception


  • Dominant groups define “normal”
  • Marginalization of others
  • De facto benefit
    Trust versus distrust
    High versus low expectations
    Benefit of the doubt versus suspicion

Conflict theory

Three theoretical traditions

Throughout the semester, we will be be using three broad theoretical lenses to make sense of social phenomena:

1. Structural functionalism


2. Conflict theory

3. Symbolic interactionism

Conflict theory

A large square labeled 'Society'. The interior of the square is broken up into several irregularly shaped regions.

Conflict theory

A large of a hippo labeled 'Society'. The interior of the hippo is broken up into several irregularly shaped regions. There is a large, prominent 'X' crossing out the whole image

Conflict theory

A large square labeled 'Society'. The interior of the square is broken up into several irregularly shaped regions. The regions at the top are labeled 'capital', and the regions at the bottom are labeled 'labor'. There are arrows pointing from each of the 'capital' regions to adjoining 'labor' regions.

Conflict theory

Some major themes from conflict theory:

Alienation (Karl Marx)

  • Humans relate to the products of their work in a very real way
  • Capitalism disconnects workers from the goods they produce
  • This necessarily yields feelings of alienation, dehumanizing workers
Photo of a board game box with large text 'Ms Monopoly'. Image is a cartoonish illustration of a woman in a blazer holding a cup of coffee standing on a busy commercial street.

Ideology (Karl Marx)

  • The ideology of the oppressors is adopted by oppressed
  • Ownership of means of production yields material and ideological power
  • Unified ideology of a culture is not due to a sense of collective belonging (as in Durkheim) but the imposition of that ideology by those in power

Conflict theory

Some major themes from conflict theory:

Authority (Max Weber)

  • Domination does not always come from a direct use of force
  • Government authority based on monopoly on “legitimate” means of force
  • Authority is given as much as taken Rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic authority

Multi-faceted (Weber, Du Bois, …)

  • Conflict is not just about capital versus labor
  • Many dimensions of society are defined by conflict within and between them
    Class, status, party stratification (Weber) Race, “Double consciousness” (Du Bois)
  • Many contemporary theoretical approaches can be thought of in the tradition of conflict theory (or critical theory)

Turtle Island from Lenape and Haudenosaunii creation stories

# Physical violence: Although laws may not differentiate along racial or ethnic lines, rates of violence and enforcement of laws do # Everyday perceptions ⦙ Informal interactions display marked discrimination in treatment and expectations ⦙ Racial steering and social expectations E.g. representation of Black Americans and expectations of Criminal activity ⦙ “Status characteristics” Informal expectations of leadership Internalized racial stereotypes ⦙ Socialization and self- perception # Privilege ⦙ Any socially enforced power relation has winners and losers ⦙ Dominant groups usually seen as “normal” baseline ⦙ Dominated experience seen as abnormal or exceptional Marginalization of oppressed communities’ experience ⦙ Intersects with other power structures, not always aligned Wealth, class, education, … ⦙ ‘Privilege’ refers to de facto benefit of being a member of a dominant racial or ethnic category Trust versus distrust High versus low expectations Benefit of the doubt versus suspicion

Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad (2017)