A Vision of Race & Ethnicity through Sociological Perspectives

There are theories in sociology which can help us understand various social activities. Through these perspectives, we may be able to explain and predict the social world in which we live and the human behavior itself. One of the issues that we should pay attention is the race and ethnicity. In this imperfect world, there are certain problems arising from people of different races and ethnicities. There are discrimination, inequality, and dysfunctions, among others. To examine race and ethnicity, sociologists use three approaches which can help explain the phenomena surrounding the issue:


Functionalism was based on the work of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton. In a functionalist perspective, a society is “a system of interconnected parts that work together in harmony to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole.” Functionalists use “functional” and “dysfunctional” to describe the effects of the social elements of the society.

So the question is: “How can racism and discrimination contribute positively to society?”

According to Nash (1964), racism and discrimination may be functional, but for a certain group only. Take into account the case of slavery of black people, in which the owners suggest that black were fundamentally inferior to white and preferred slavery to freedom. Also, it can be functional in a way of strengthening bonds and security without allowing people of different color enter your group.

However, the dysfunction lies in which failure to acknowledge the skills and abilities of the subjugated group. There is also division which will produce instability in the society of people as a whole.

Conflict Theory

If functionalism views society as composed of different parts working together, conflict approach sees society as composed of different groups and interest competing for power and resources. The conflict perspective can be traced back to the works of Karl Marx. “Marx suggested that all societies go through stages of economic development” in which making profit and hallmark is the much concern than survival.

Conflict theory is considered an essential perspective to view issues regarding race and ethnicity. After the civil war in the 19th century, there was a rising from the side of the black Americans in which they wanted to achieve equality. The white immediately passed a law to severely limit the black from obtaining political and social power. The Civil War was a perfect example of how white people deprive black people of their rights, manipulating electoral boundaries and suppressing their rights to vote just to maintain power over them.

Symbolic Interactionism

On the other hand, symbolic interactionism views race and ethnicity as sources of identity. For some interactionists, the symbols of race, not the race itself, are what lead to racism. According to Herbert Blumer (1958), “racial prejudice is formed through interactions between members of the dominant group.” These interactions contribute to the picture that subordinate group allows the dominant group to support its perspective of the subordinate group. Another example is that to study how people see and define that races and the race of others.