Sociology Race
Rashawn Ray, Nicole DeLoatch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0173


Race is a human classification system that is socially constructed to distinguish between groups of people who share phenotypical characteristics. Since race is socially constructed, dominant groups in society have shaped and informed racial categories in order to maintain systems of power—thereby also producing racial inequality. Racial categorization has primarily been simplistic, essentialist, and typological in nature, forcing people to “fit” into categories that do not necessarily reflect their ethnic or national heritage. The process of racialization has shifted racial boundaries, depending on sociopolitical pressures for inclusion into particular racial groups or even the systematic exclusion of people due to social forces such as war or labor market pressures. Racism is a byproduct of racial categorization that focuses on the hierarchical arrangement of various racial groups. Racism is an oppressive force that creates and reproduces a complex system social inequality. Sociologists strive to illuminate the dynamics behind the persistent and lingering inequalities and injustices that continue to persist in our racialized society.

Theories on Race

Goldberg 2002, Hall 1996, and Winant 2000 provide theoretical frameworks, as well as analytical and methodological approaches to investigate the complexities of the social construction of race and ethnicity. Goldberg 2002, Holt 2000, and Winant 2000 also provide theoretical approaches that may allow researchers to understand race differences in social outcomes and differing racialization processes. Cox 1970 and Holt 2000 provide intellectual resources for understanding the continually changing nature of racial categorization, discrimination, and prejudice. Robinson 2000 presents competing perspectives on the tangled interactions between the social constellations of race and class. Lieberman 1998 (cited under Critical Race Theory) and Lopez and Espiritu 1990 critically evaluate ideas on post-racialism and offer sociohistorical comparative analyses of racial discrimination and racism. Wilson 1978 (cited under Post-Racialism) investigates power dynamics and the lingering effects of racial inequality, placing sociological discourse on race and racism in America at the center of his analyses.

  • Cox, Oliver C. 1970. Caste, class, and race. New York: Monthly Review.

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    In this pivotal work, Cox analyzed the seemingly related Indian caste system and US racial stratification social systems. Through his expansive theoretical analysis, his primary finding was that the US racial hierarchy could not be fully explained using caste as a systemic framework.

  • Goldberg, David Theo. 2002. The racial state. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    Goldberg constructs a complex argument about the racialization of modernity as it relates to state formation. This theoretical work analyzes how the racial homogeneity and heterogeneity of groups within a state allows the state to produce, reproduce, and maintain a social order based upon racial stratification.

  • Hall, Stuart. 1996. Race, articulation, and societies structured in dominance. In Black British cultural studies: A reader. Edited by H. Baker, M. Diawara, and R. Lindeborg, 305–345. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Hall uses a structural Marxist perspective to develop an analysis of race using Althusser’s theory of society. This sociological approach to understanding race attempts to explain race using an analytical framework that examines race and racism historically, structurally, and economically.

  • Holt, Thomas. 2000. The problem of race in the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Holt constructs a noteworthy argument that juxtaposes the idealization of blacks in popular culture against their increasingly invisible social status, and in doing so he emphasizes the tension between how blacks are held at the center of the entertainment and sports spheres while simultaneously being marginalized in society.

  • Lieberson, Stanley. 1961. A societal theory of race and ethnic relations. American Sociological Review 26.6: 902–910.

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    Lieberson constructs a theory about the cyclical nature of race relations where dominant groups in society have the power to structure social order on subordinate groups. He uses this theory to explain the dynamics that maintain the hierarchical racial/ethnic social, political, and economic relations.

  • Lopez, David, and Yen Espiritu. 1990. Panethnicity in the United States: A theoretical framework. Ethnic and Racial Studies 13.2: 198–224.

    DOI: 10.1080/01419870.1990.9993669Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This case study of the development of panethnic cooperation between Asian, Native, Indo, and Latin Americans found that more cross-group structural and cultural similarities led to higher social relations. This panethnic research found that structural factors are also critical to understanding solidarity between ethnic groups.

  • Robinson, Cedric J. 2000. Black Marxism: The making of the black radical tradition. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

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    Traditional Marxist approaches have neglected the extent to which race as a social structural factor influences labor market relations. This book argues that in order for Marxist perspectives to truly scrutinize the inner workings of exploitation, they must accurately consider how racism influences capitalism.

  • Winant, Howard. 2000. Race and race theory. Annual Review of Sociology 26:169–185.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.169Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Winant provides a sociohistorical view of the field of sociology’s development of the conceptualization of race and racism from DuBois to the Chicago school. His work sheds light on European colonialism as a racial project and the need for a more critical analysis as opposed to an ahistorical analysis of race, racial injustice, prejudice, and discrimination.

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