'Race' in Britain -- some classic sociological approaches


This is a very interesting issue for sociological theory, as well as an important political and social policy matter. 'Race' is still a relatively new dimension of stratification in many ways, largely underplayed by the classic theorists, but placed on the agenda in Europe in the thirties and following World War II, when immigration of black people became noticable. 

In fact, there have been steady flows of immigrant labour into Britain, at least since the War, from a number of places - Eire, other European countries, the 'white Commonwealth' and the 'new Commonwealth' 

The last category gives us some idea of the numbers of black people. They occupy roughly 34% of all foreign immigrants into the UK. It is worth noting that there have been considerable flows of people emigrating from the UK too, of course. 

Black people currently make up about 5% of the population (some two and a half million people in all). The data are interesting here too: about 43% have been born in Britain, for example, and black people tend to live in particular areas. 

These data alone start to give an idea of the complexity involved. Using your understanding of the arguments so far, discuss the following statements: 

1. Britain has been swamped by black immigration. 
2. Prejudice against black people is the result of the natural suspicions towards newcomers. 

Generally, there is considerable evidence of an 'ethnic' or 'racial' factor in stratification in Britain. Black people in general are treated less equally, and hold the lowest paid occupations, live in the worst housing, underachieve in the education system disproportionately and so on. Within this generalization, though, there are variations. There are noticeable examples of individual successes, and inter-group variations: Afro-Caribbeans are more consistently placed at lower levels than Asians, for example. Asians largely occupy unskilled or semi-skilled positions, but there is a significant minority in small businesses and professional/white-collar work (Allen and Smith 1974, Cashmore and Troyna 1983). Differences in gender, also have effects within groups (see, for example, Tomlinson 19XX, Fuller 1984). 

At the political level, it might be desirable to see all these differences submerged under the political identity of 'black', as Sivanandan would argue (see Sivanandan 1983), especially if the alternative is to see differences between groups in purely cultural terms. But in terms of sociological theory, all this social diversity raises considerable difficulties: can any general theory do justice to all this complexity? Can we usefully separate the effects of 'race' when it is clear that race, class, gender, 
and age interact? 

Before we can even get on to sociological argument properly, we need to clear the ground a bit, and see off one particularly rival, non-sociological account - (socio)biology. 

Biological Accounts 

There is a long history of this approach in Britain and elsewhere, as Barker (19XX) explains. Basically, black people were seen as members of a different biological group, a race. Modern versions insist on genetic differences between black and white races. The arguments can get technical and beyond our scope here (see Tomlinson 19XX), but a discussion of a notorious and fairly recent contribution might help ground the issues. 

Before we discuss it, you might like to consider the ethical and political issues of discussing work like this. Should we be taking this sort of work seriously at all? Our own view is that students ought to examine all aspects of the debate, for academic and political reasons - but we are well aware of the dangers of a 'value-free' approach. Come and discuss your views with us, please, if they differ. 

Eysenck (1971) shows that there are differences in IQ scores between black and white populations in the UK and the USA - that is differences in the mean or average socres, which are accompanied by a considerable overlap in the actual distributions. The usual response to such findings is to argue that the IQ test is biased in some way in favour of white people, and that tests measure cultural differences. But Eysenck goes on to point out that other ethnic groups, like Mexicans and Japanese, are also culturally very different, but they do as well on the test as whites - or better.. 

After several attempts to control for cultural factors, Eysenck concludes there must still be some residual factor to explain the differences between blacks and whites. Following a long tradition, he decides that this is a 'natural' or genetic difference. He is then at pains to distance himself from any kind of systematic racial discrimination as a consequence of his findings - but various right-wind groups have used his arguments (and those of Jensen (1969)), precisely in that way - one of the most extraordinary National Front posters we have ever seen had a picture of Jensen, and some of his data. It was being held triumphantly aloft by a couple of white skinheads! 

The resulting debate reveals some general problems with biological accounts: 

(a) No gene has yet been found which is associated with intelligence, ambition, cultural competence, or any of the other factors linked to educational or social achievement, or, for that matter, social 

(b) It is very difficult to establish significant genetic differences between black and white people, apart from obvious ones like skin colour. Skin colour itself is a very poor predictor of genetic make-up - after all, there has been so much genetic mixing among people of different colour (even 
in the old apartheid Republic of South Africa!) 

(c) The whole account is a classic 'argument by residues' - if all known factors cannot explain differences, there must be a genetic difference. But there could equally well be another unknown, non-genetic factors - how about the non-verbal expectations conveyed by the testers, for example, or some completely unresearched factor no one knows about yet? 

(d) At the most general level - biological accounts are reductive. All the social and historical complexities are reduced to some underlying biological factors. We want to suggest, with Durkehim, that social facts can only be explained by other social facts (Durkheim 19 ), You might want to consider Durkheim's point if you are interested in biological accounts to explain gender differences. 

Despite these difficulties, biologistic accounts are still very popular in this field (and others). for a critical discussion of 'sociobiology', for example, see Barker (19 

On the other hand, problems like this have led to many theorists wanting to abandon the classic biologistic concept of 'race' altogether, and to search for other explanations. 

Functionalist Accounts 

There are a number of accounts available here. Some approaches began as an explanation for problems faced by immigrants to Britain. These persons faced a problem of cultural adjustment, it was argued, since they lacked the necessary cultural recipes needed for a fully competent social performance. Immigrants needed secondary socialisation, and had to be assimilated into a 'host culture' or set of core values. Until they were, social tension was bound to arise. 

Functionalist accounts also offered some hope in the long term, however, since society would eventually adjust and regain equilibrium. This could happen either when immigrants were finally assimilated, or when society's core values changed. Change could take two directions: either Britain would become more metitocratic in such a way as to make irrelevant all ascribed statuses (including race and gender), or Britain would become multicultural, with a new cultural pluralism. 

There are clear links with several other approaches. The emphasis on culture can be shared by social psychological approaches, with an interest in processes like stereotyping, or in the representations of black people in, say, the mass media (see Twitchen 1974) 

There are clear links with policy initiatives too. Multicultural education is clearly connected So are other 'race relations' initiatives. The first PEP survey (1974) focussed on attitudes towards black people and found that contact softened some of the initial hostility and suspicion. This led to support for the first equal opportunities legislation which could be seen as helping functional adjustments to take place by encouraging social mixing at work and in housing and leisure. Many community relations initiatives probably share the same culturalist orientation . You might also be able to see the connections with policies of social mixing between the social classes which lay behind much educational policy of the 1960s. 


There are familiar criticisms of the functionalist approach. It over-emphasises culture and values, for example, and neglects (relatively) aspects of work, labour, and the structured conflicts and inequalities they involve Racism is seen as a 'cultural lag' affecting immigrants rather than as a currently active, persistent mechanism affecting even fully culturally competent second generation black British. 

Certainly, the history of immigration into Britain is hard to grasp without understanding the labour market: the first waves of immigration from the 'West Indies', for example, were deliberately encouraged to fill labour shortages. Labour markets still do differentiate according to 'race'. This is not just a reflection of any prejudiced attitudes or values on the part of employers: economic growth and recession, particular requirements for levels of skill in labour, labour costs, the relative market position of labour - all of these have a part to play on their own. 
So Castles and Kosack (19 ), for example, are able to argue that discrimination against black immigrants in most European countries is a response to unfavourable positions in labour markets. Low wages led to poor housing conditions, concentration in urban areas, reduced opportunities, and, we might add, low status images for black people. 

We said that race is a complex issue. All perspectives can help cast some light on the issue. Before we continue, list for yourselves the advantages and disadvantages of functionalist accounts ..... 

Weberian Approaches 

Castles and Kosack cited above are marxists, and we shall return to marxism at the end. But it is already clear that racial discrimination has a number of social dimensions. Labour markets inevitably link with other social and political goods in their 'distributive' markets too. Immigrants especially face multiple discriminations. 

(a) at work in terms of low wages and insecurity; 
(b) in the political sphere, where they are frequently denied full citizenship rights (especially after 1971 in the UK), and equal access to welfare provision; 
(c) in local housing markets; 
(d) in schools and colleges; 
(e) in distributive markets, especially leisure. 

We do not have to insist that economic factors are somehow more fundamental than the rest. We can pursue a Weberian strategy of complexity in stratification. This approach is exemplified briefly in discussions of race in three major models: 

 Rex and Moore 
This famous study of Sparkbrook focusses on the notion of 'housing class' (Rex and Moore 1967) Type and location of housing is an important aspect of stratification at both subjective and objective levels. Black residents were very restricted in the style and location of housing to which they could get access- restricted by low incomes and poor borrowing potential, and prejudice and hostility by white landlords, agents and vendors, and limited rights in terms of access to council housing. A combination of factors led to black concentration in particular types of poor housing. (On housing and race specifically, see Ginsburg 1988, and for a good discussion and critique of the Rex and Moore study, see Pahl 1968). 

The general work here introduces the notion of social class as the result of a number of 'structuration factors' (Giddens 1979) ('mediate' factors concerning chances of social mobility, and 'proximate' factors like place in divisions of labour, patterns of authority, and distributive groups) 

Normally, these factors pull in different directions to prevent concentrations of underprivilege, and complicate the class system. in the case of black people, above all in the USA, they serve to focus underprivilege. Black people are on the receiving end of all the disadvantages. As such, black people run the risk of becoming an underclass, a group permanently isolated and detached from the rest of us at the bottom of the class sytem. 

We said that the notion of 'underclass' seems to fit the class position of black people in the USA ... but what about Britain? You might find some evidence in Halsey's Introduction to Social Trends 1987. 

An unashamedly Weberian approach here, again part of a more general project to develop concrete and complex models of class (Parkin 1974, 1979). The 'closure' approach also offers an elegantly simple mechanism to explain stratification - people draw boundaries around themselves, says parkin, as a strategy, in order to pursue certain market advantages, to close off opportunities to those who are not members of that group. Any human characteristic can be used to draw a social boundary (although the State and capital encourage some rather than others), and skin colour or cultural differences ('ethnicity') is clearly a major one. 

Weber himself had pointed to this possibility, says Parkin. Social solidarity can be based on a number of factors like market position or class in the marxist sense, but 'community factors' are just as potent, and these can include ethnic loyalty. An 'oscillation' is likely to occur around these factors - briefly, in times of economic crisis market position is likely to be the dominant factor, but in times of relative economic stability, ethnic factors can become very potent. No one can forget how potent they became in the German Reich that Weber lived long enough to see emerging in the 1930s. 

Marxist Accounts 

Stratification by enthnic group is a particular problem for classic marxist accounts. Vulgar marxism discounts the problem altogether, and sees 'race' as a mere epiphenomenom, distinguishing the fundamental split between the real, traditional, classes. This is the sort of marxism that Parkin rebukes as being unable to deal with the real complexities of stratification, especially of the 'new' forms (Parkin 1979). 

The general marxist retort to Parkin or any of the other Weberians is that they have isolated and listed a number of social processes like closure or structuration but give no systemstic account of them (see Barbalet 1982), for example, and the whole debate between Barbalet and Murphy 1985). 
The approach does not explain what puts ethnicity or skin colour on the agenda so prominently, what makes it a potent basis for systematic discrimination in capitalism. We can end with two possible approaches: 

(a) Racism is impossible to understand without understanding imperialism (non-marxists have also said this, but for marxists, imperialism is itself inspired and driven by economic pressures). In the process of imperial conquest, white Britons encountered persons with different cultures and skin colours - and conquered and exploited them. These events led to a class ideological distortion (ideology is the truth but upside down according to one famous formulation) - the cultural differences and skin colour were taken as signs of inferiority. The subdued, conquered and demoralised state of the colonised was seen as an attribute of their culture, rather than as a result of superior technology. That ideological legacy and imperialist context helps energise skin colour as a factor in the processes of closure in Britain. 

(b) In the present, stratification by ethnicity does serve capitalism. The underclass is a modern substitute for the classic 'reserve army of the unemployed' which keeps wages low, divides the work force in both real and ideological terms, buffers the economy against booms and slumps, and so on. 

In general, although we will not explore this any further here, all the multiple factors mentioned in the Weberian approaches can be fitted to marxist models (indeed, Giddens does this himself 1982). The 'social formation' is a complex one in modern marxism, with 3 or 4 'levels' ('economic', 'political' and 'ideological/cultural' according to one famous model (Althusser 1977). 'Race is functional at each of these levels. (Parkin specifically criticises this version of marxism too, if you are interested). 

List below the issues that divide marxists and weberians on stratification by race. Compare each approach with the functionalist accounts you discussed earlier. 

There are a number of approaches available, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. How should we choose between them? There are sociological debates here, but as we said at the beginning, political ones are involved too. Perhaps we should choose perspectives that have the political implications we find most desirable? 


Allen S and Smith C. 'Race and Ethnicity in Class Formation: a comparison of Asian and West Indian workers' in Parkin F (Ed.) The Social Analysis of Class Structure, Tavistock 1974. 
Althusser L 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus ...' in Althusser L Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, NLB, 1977. 
Barbalet J 'Social closure in class analysis: A critique of Parkin' in Sociology Vol.16, No.4, 1982. 
Barker M The New Racism: conservatives and the ideology of the tribe, Junction Books, 1981. 
Cashmore E and Troyna B Introduction to Race Relations, RKP, 1983 (especially Ch.4). 
Castles S and Kosack G (1973) Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Europe, OUP. 
Durkheim E Rules of the Sociological Method, The Free Press, 1966. 
Eysenck H Race, Intelligence and Education, Temple Smith, 1971. 
Fuller M 'Black Girls in a Comprehensive School' in Hammersley M and Woods P (Eds.) Life in School: The Sociology of Pupil Culture, Open University Press, 1984. 
Giddens A The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies, Hutchinson, 1979. 
Giddens A 'Class Structure and Class Consciousness' in Giddens A and Held D (Eds.) Class, Power and Conflict, Macmillan, 1982 (see also Section VII, 'Class, Race and the City'). 
Ginsburg N 'Institutional racism and local authority housing' in Critical Social Policy, Vol.24, Winter 1988/89. 
Jensen A 'Environment, Heredity and Intelligence' in Harvard Educational Review, Vol.39, 1969. 
Pahl, R (Ed.) Readings in Urban Sociology, 1988. 
Parkin F 'Strategies of Social Closure in Class Formation' in Parkin F (Ed.) The Social Analysis of Class Structure, Tavistock, 1974. 
Parkin F Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique, Tavistock, 1979. 
Rex J and Moore R Race, Conflict and Community: A Study of Sparkbrook, Oxford University Press, 1967. 
Sivanandan, A 'Challenging Racism: Strategies for the '80s' in Race and Class, XXV, No.2, 1983. 
Tomlinson S 'The Educational Performance of Ethnic Minority Children' in James A and Jeffcoate R (Eds.) The School in a Multicultural Society. 
Twitchin J (Ed.) The Black and White Media Book, Trentham Books, 1981. 

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