September 17, 2018

Ethnic/Racial Boundaries


What are ethnic / racial boundaries?

How do they vary?

Race vs Ethnicity?


Social Boundaries:

social boundaries:

1. categories for people and category rules

  • "labels" and "definitions"

2. real-world practices that use those categories

  • what we "do" with those labels

Social Boundaries:

Include many kinds of "identities"

  • gender, sexuality, class, citizen, mental illness, criminal

and …

ethnicity, race

Social Boundaries: Categories


internal categorization: self-identification by person/group of people

external categorization: identification of person/group of people by others

Types of criteria:

  • descent rules
  • physical traits: skin color, appearance
  • language, dress, behavior


Social Boundaries: Practices


  • Several different aspects


Social Boundaries: Institutions

institutional use: the use of ethnic/racial categories by formal institutions to label people (not necessarily in a discriminatory manner)

  • examples: census forms, school forms, voting rules, government social service records

institutional separation: the presence of distinct formal institutions for people labelled as members of different ethnic/racial categories (not necessarily unequal)

  • examples: churches/houses of worship, stores, schools, private associations, voting constituencies, governments, political parties

Social Boundaries: social closure

social closure: the use of ethnic/racial categories to separate or organize personal/informal interactions between people (not necessarily unequal)

  • examples of separation: neighborhoods, use of space (e.g. pools), marriage, reproduction (endogamy), friendship

Social Boundaries: power

power disparity: the use of ethnic/racial categories to discriminate in access to goods, services, rights, recognition (e.g. in institutional use, institutional separation, social closure) that enhances/restricts the life choices

  • legal examples: property rights, marriage/inheritance, education, government jobs, government services, elected representation, criminal law, affirmative action

  • other examples: housing discrimination, job discrimination, restricting spaces (e.g. private clubs, gated communities)

  • social closure: employer/employee relations; customer/client relations; formal/informal modes of address; non-reciprocity in forms of interaction

Social Boundaries: cultural difference

cultural differentiation: the use of ethnic/racial categories to differentiate cultural practices (food, clothing, traditions), language, and religious belief.

Note: Sometimes cultural difference is used to define category membership. Sometimes cultural difference is a way to use categories:

examples: choice of alphabet/spellings; changing vocabulary (Hindustani vs Urdu vs Hindi)

Social Boundaries: cognitive

marking: using category labels for some groups as distinct from a "reference" or "unmarked" category that is the unspoken default (e.g. "white" as the unspoken default)

groupness: using category labels to proclaim or invoke the existence and unity of a group (parades, mass performances, history/schooling)

Social Boundaries: cognitive

explain behavior: using ethnic/racial category labels to explain

  • you are group X, you must believe/do Y
  • you did Y BECAUSE you are group X

exemption: use of ethnic/racial categories to claim or identify exemption:

  • you are group X, but you are "all right" (implicitly group X is not "all right")
  • I am an X, so I can criticize other people within X (implicitly outsiders cannot legitimately criticize)

In groups of 4-6

Two questions:

Thinking about rules defining categories and practices using those categories…

How are "ethnic" boundaries different from "racial" boundaries?

How are "ethnic" boundaries different from "class" boundaries?