The Concept of Race: Social Science

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 8
Words: 2376
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: PhD

Nowadays, it has become a commonplace practice among social scientists to claim that the concept of race is nothing but a ‘social construct’, which is why it does not constitute much of a scientific value. As Arnesen pointed out: “One common denominator of most race studies is a core belief in the ‘social construction of race’… scholars remind us that race has no biological or genetic basis” (6). This point of view does make a certain sense. After all, in light of recent discoveries in the field of genetics, the concept of race, as a biological constant, does appear discursively outdated. At the same time, however, the concept of race continues to be featured rather prominently, within the context of how domestic policies in Western countries are being designed. For example, even though police officers are now discouraged from utilizing the methodology of a ‘racial profiling’, they do often deploy this practice unofficially, as it does help them to catch criminals (Warren and Tomaskovic-Devey 350). The institutionalisation of the so-called ‘affirmative action’ policy, which provides quotas for the representatives of racial minorities to enroll in universities and colleges, also exemplifies the validity of this suggestion.

It appears that certain parallels can be drawn between the concept of race, on the one hand, and the concept of energy, on the other. After all, just as happened to be the case with ‘race’, there is no de facto ‘energy’, as an actual substance. There is the movement of objects through space, commonly referred to as ‘kinetic energy’, the measure of a particular object’s elevation, denominated as ‘potential energy’, and electromagnetic radiation, which some physicists refer to in terms of ‘energy’. In other words, the term ‘energy’ is nothing but a figure of speech. This, however, does not undermine the term’s discursive validity. The same can be said about the term ‘race’ – even though that there is no race, as a spatially stable denominator of one’s existential identity, there can be a few doubts, as to this term’s ability to remain the integral part of the ongoing socio-cultural discourses in the West. In my paper, I will explore the soundness of this thesis at length, while outlining what were the major claims and controversies, associated with the process of the concept of race undergoing a qualitative transformation, and the obtained insights, as to how this concept may continue remaining consistent with the methodology of social sciences.

The origins of the concept of race can be traced back to the Medieval era. This is because, even back then people were growing increasingly aware of the fact that one’s anthropological characteristics do influence the manner in which the concerned individual addresses life-challenges. However, the early conceptualizations of race were not even slightly concerned with accentuating the biologically predetermined aspects of people’s racial affiliation. According to Baum: “Medieval Europeans… emphasized cultural criteria of (racial) difference and lacked any clearly developed notion of ‘fixed natures’ of different descent groups” (36). As time went on, Europeans were gradually beginning to recognize that there is an ‘innate’ component to people’s visual appearance, which they believed was essentially environmental. As one of the early ‘racial scientists’, Francois Bernier used to stress out: “Although the Egyptians… are very black, or rather copper-colored, that color is only an accident in them, and it comes because they are constantly exposed to the sun” (Spencer 169). What is particularly peculiar, in this respect, is that the process of Europeans adopting the ideals of the Enlightenment, based upon the assumption of people’s universal equality, came hand in hand with the process of European intellectuals promoting the racist idea that, as compared to what it was the case with Whites, Blacks were greatly inferior. Even such an ardent advocate of ‘people’s equality’ as Voltaire considered it thoroughly appropriate referring to Black people, as being nothing short of sub-humans: “The Negro race is a species of men as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds. Their understanding is… at least greatly inferior” (West 306). However, it would be inappropriate to think of these intellectuals’ ill-concealed racism, as the proof of their ‘wickedness’. After all, while traveling throughout the world, during the course of the Exploration Era, Europeans had failed to discover people, whose extent of a civilizational development would match that of their own. This, of course, naturally caused them to assume that the specifics of one’s physical appearance are indeed being reflective of his or her ability to act as the agent of progress.

At the same time, even as early as throughout the course of the 19th century, the legitimacy of the concept of race, as something homogenous, was becoming progressively undermined by the very same ‘racial scientists’, who wanted to come up with a scientific explanation to the superiority of Whites – whatever ironic it may sound. This is because, as history progressed, it was becoming increasingly clear for them that there are in fact a few ‘sub-races’ within the White race. For example, British physiologist William Lawrence used to suggest that the White race consists of ‘sub-races’ of Celts, Germanics and Slavs, while implying that Germanics were vastly superior to their ‘brethren in race’. American physiologist Samuel Norton came up with a similar idea. Even though that he regarded the Irish, as the integral part of the ‘Caucasian’ race, he never ceased stressing out that, psychologically and behaviorally speaking, these people differ from other Whites rather dramatically, “The most unsophisticated Celts… whose wild look and manner, mud cabins and funereal howlings, recall the memory of a barbarous age” (Spencer 178). It is needless to mention, of course, that this created objective preconditions for the concept of race, as such that implied the existence of dialectical links between the specifics of people’s physical appearance and the particulars of their existential mode, to be increasingly associated with the notion of a pseudo-science. After all, if these links did exist, then psychologically speaking, there should not have been any differences between Anglo-Saxons and the Irish or Slavs, for example, because the representatives of all three sub-ethnoses are unmistakably White. Yet, as the objective realities indicate, such differences do exist, which in turn explains why in the U.S., the Irish used to be traditionally treated, as being somewhat inferior to their White ‘brethren’. In its turn, this prompted biologists and social scientists to grow progressively aware that, instead of tackling the concept of race within the methodological framework of anthropology, this concept should addressed within the methodological framework of psychology.

The discovery of DNA and the biologists’ realization of the fact that genes are largely responsible for defining the qualitative aspects of people’s ‘brain wiring’, made it possible for the concept of race to regain its discursive soundness. Contrary to what it was the case in the past, however, the contemporary concept of race does not merely serve as the tool of people’s classification, according to what happened to be the color of their skin, but rather as the instrument of defining their genetically predetermined cognitive/behavioral inclinations. The validity of this statement can be well illustrated in regards to the insights, as to how the specifics of people’s racial affiliation reflect the rate of their Intellectual Quotidian (IQ), contained in the books The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray and IQ and the Wealth of Nations by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen. According to the authors, the available statistical data does suggest that: a) genetic factors play a crucial role in defining the rate of people’s IQ; b) people’s affiliation with a particular socioeconomic status reflects upon their varying capacity to indulge in abstract thinking and to address life-challenges in the ‘quick-minded’ manner. As Lynn and Vanhanen noted: “IQs appear to be determined by the racial and ethnic make-up of the populations… The countries with lower proportions of Europeans and greater proportions of Native Americans, Blacks, and Mestizos have lower IQs” (263). Thus, there is nothing particularly odd about the fact that, ever since the earlier mentioned books were published, they never ceased being ostracized on the account of their ‘racism’. For example, while referring to Herrnstein’s book, Gould stated: “The Bell Curve is extraordinarily one-dimensional. The book makes no attempt to survey the range of available data, and pays astonishingly little attention to the rich and informative history of this contentious subject” (“Critique of The Bell Curve” 371). However, the fact that The Bell Curve and IQ and the Wealth of Nations do not quite correlate with the provisions of political correctness, does not necessarily mean that the insights, contained in them should be disregarded, as utterly anti-scientific. Quite on the contrary – the analysis of the societal implications of people’s racial affiliation, featured in these books, appears thoroughly consistent with the Theory of Evolution, and with what today’s biologists know about the actual ‘mechanics’ of how one’s genes define his or her stance in life.

In a person’s DNA, there are 46 chromosomes, with half of them being inherited from a father and another half from a mother. Out of 23 chromosomes, passed to an individual from his/her father, in Y-chromosome (in males there are Y and X chromosomes, in females only X-chromosome) there is a combination of nucleotides that continues to be passed from generation to generation for thousands of years, without undergoing any transformation, whatsoever. This is what biologists refer to as one’s haplogroup – a modern equivalent of the 19th century’s concept of race (Rindermann, Woodley and Stratford 368). As of today, there is a plenty of empirical evidence, as to the fact that one’s affiliation with a particular haplogroup reflects the qualitative essence of how he or she tends to perceive the surrounding reality, and to form spatially stable opinions of it – the so-called ‘memes’, which are also being passed from generation to generation largely unchanged. As Dawkins noted: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via replication” (206). In its turn, this confirms the validity of the early racialists’ suspicion that there may be in fact a few ‘races’ within just about any visually distinctive race.

For example, according to what recently compiled ‘haplo-maps’ of the world tell us, 85% of Irish citizens are the bearers of Paleo European haplogroup Y1, which prior to Aryan invasions (haplogroups R1a and R1b), used to dominate the Europe’s genetic landscape; whereas, in Britain or Germany, ‘paleoeuropeans’ account for only 5%-10% (Myres, Rootsi and Lin 99). Hence, the particulars of Irish people’s existential uniqueness, which were traditionally setting the Irish apart from other Whites – their tendency to indulge in violence, strong adherence to ritualistic traditions, and somewhat undermined ability to indulge in intellectual pursuits.

What has been said earlier helps to explain other inconsistencies of classical racial theories, without deeming the concept of race outdated. For example, why is it that, despite having been born ‘pure White’, many Whites cannot help experiencing a strongly felt fascination with Blacks, while trying to dress and to act like the latter? Alternatively, why do some Blacks appear to be ‘White on the inside’, in the behavioral sense of this word, despite the fact that they were born and raised in Black families? Why is it that, despite having not known any other countries, but the one in which they were born and raised, many people do experience a particularly hard time, while trying to relate to this country’s cultural traditions? This is because one’s actual ‘race’ has very little to do with what happened to be the concerned individual’s physical appearance or what were the particulars of his or her upbringing, but rather with what this person is, in the ‘haplogroupic’ sense of this word. In other words, the notion of race should be conceptualized in terms of a gene. In this respect, one could hardly disagree with Gould, who noted that: “The most exciting and still emerging discovery in modern paleoanthroplogy and human genetics will force us to rethink the entire question of human categories in a radical way” (“Three Centuries’ Perspectives on Race and Racism” 398). It is important to understand that here are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ genes, but only the ones that succeed in ensuring the survival of its replicas, and the ones that do not. The actual manner in how genes ensure their continual replication is irrelevant. This is why, despite the fact that Blacks indeed appear somewhat less capable to indulge in abstract philosophizing, as compared to what it is being the case with Whites, this could not possibly be considered as the proof of Black people’s ‘inferiority’. The reason for this is simple – as opposed to ‘intellectually advanced’ Whites, Blacks have not been deprived of their biological vitality. Even a brief glance at the statistical data, concerned with demographic dynamics in Western countries, confirms the validity of this statement. This is only the thing that matters.

As it was mentioned in the Introduction, referring to the concept of race in terms of a socially upheld myth, does not make much of a sense. There is, of course, no pure ‘race’, just as there is no pure ‘energy’. This, however, cannot be thought of as a good enough reason to deny that, discursively speaking, this concept remains thoroughly legitimate. Just as it is being the case with people who periodically replace their old cars with new ones (often differently colored), while the manner in how people drive these cars remaining the same, genes periodically ‘switch’ human bodies (often differently colored), while causing these bodies to act in accordance with the provisions of a particular ‘meme’. Therefore, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by suggesting that, even though that the specifics of people’s racial affiliation may cease being discussed solely in regards to the concerned individuals’ bodily coloring, there can be no doubts that the concept of race will continue remaining thoroughly valid. This is because it does help social scientists to explain the significance of qualitative dynamics within the society, which continues to be considered the sociology’s primary function. I believe that this conclusion is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.

Works Cited

Arnesen, Eric. “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination.” International Labor and Working-Class History 60.3 (2001): 3-32. Print.

“Critique of The Bell Curve.” The Mismeasure of Man. Stephen Gould. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. 367-391. Print.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976. Print.

Herrnstein, Richard and Charles Murray. Bell Curve. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1994. Print.

Lynn, Richard and Tatu.Vanhanen. IQ and the Wealth of Nations. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

Myres, Natalie, Siiri Rootsi and Alice Lin. “A Major Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R1b: Holocene Era Founder Effect in Central and Western Europe.” European Journal of Human Genetics 19.1 (2011): 95-101. Print.

Rindermann, Heiner, Michael Woodley and James Stratford. “Haplogroups as Evolutionary Markers of Cognitive Ability.” Intelligence 40.4 (2012): 362-375. Print.

“Three Centuries’ Perspectives on Race and Racism.” The Mismeasure of Man. Stephen Gould. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. 391-425. Print.

Spencer, Frank. “Bernier, Francois (1620—1688).” History of Physical Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997. 161-175. Print.

Spencer, Frank. Ecce Homo: An Annotated Bibliographic History of Physical Anthropology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Print.

Warren, Patricia and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey. “Racial Profiling and Searches: Did the Politics of Racial Profiling Change Police Behavior?” Criminology & Public Policy 8.2 (2009): 343-369. Print.

West, Cornel. “A Genealogy of Modern Racism.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003. 298-309. Print.