Essay on Difference Between Racial Groups and Ethnic Groups

Race is Not a Biological Concept: The word ‘race’ as a biological concept is almost meaningless today. There are over 6 billion people in the world, and they display a wide variety of skin colours, hair textures, limb-to-trunk ratios and other characteristics such as distinctive nose, lip, eyelid forms and so on.

Some have defined a race as a group of people separated from other groups by a distinctive combination of physical characteristics. Such a definition invites problems, because of intermixing, overlapping and the gradual shading of physical characteristics. Thus, a “race” is not a biologically distinct grouping of people.

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Race is a Social Creation:

Social scientists recognise that there is no such thing as a race based purely on objective biological differences. On the contrary, races are regarded as social creations. They result from the attribution of biological characteristics – real or imagined – to a group, which is then treated as different from other groups. Race is a socially significant reality. Definition of Race

1. Horton and Hunt:

“A race is a group of people somewhat different from other groups in its combination of inherited physical characteristics, but race is also substantially determined by popular social definition.”

2. Richard T. Schaefer:

“The term racial group is used to describe a group which is set apart from others because of obvious physical differences.” For example, whites, blacks, and Asian Americans are all considered racial groups within the United States”

3. N.J. Smelser:

“Racial group is a kind of ethnic group, one that is set apart from others by some combination of inherited biological traits such as – skin colour, facial features and stature.”

Rejection of the Conventional Three-Fold Classification of Races:

Though at present, race is more regarded in social terms than biological, for decades together it was regarded as a human category based on biological qualities. Until very recently, many scholars particularly anthropologists and text-book writers grouped human beings into three major races namely:

(i) The Caucasoid Race:

Which included most people of Europe, the Middle East, and India as well.

(ii) The Mongoloid Race:

Which included most Japanese, Chinese, Nepalese, Koreans, Vietnamese

(iii) The Negroid Race:

Which included black African people, and the American Negroes and their descendants.

This kind of classification system grew out of 19th century theories that attributed not only specific physical traits but also certain moral and mental traits to each “race”. Thus most of the human group could be placed in one of these three categories. No Fixed Set of Physical Traits to Classify Races

Classification schemes of this sort have been discredited and rejected today. No set of-physical traits serves to define any “race”, moreover, there is too wide a range in any given trait for it to serve as a basis for classifying people into one or the other race. The racial placement of some groups is uncertain because their characteristics overlap.


(i) Asian Indians have Mongoloid skin colour but Caucasoid facial features; (ii) Some dark-skinned Africans have straight hair, narrow noses, and thin lips; (iii) Some light-skinned Europeans have wolly hair, wide noses, and thick lips; (iv) The Ainu of northern Japan have Caucasoid skin colour and hair but Mogoloid facial features.

Interbreeding has blurred the Physical Traits:

The above examples make it evident that it is difficult to establish race as a biological category. One major difficulty in this regard is that over the centuries inbreeding among peoples has blurred the physical traits. Thus physical lines of differences cannot help to demarcate races. Nearly all racial groups are considered intermixed. The Jews of Israel provide the best example in this regard.

The complexions of Jews who have migrated to their homeland are as diverse as those in the various countries from which they have come. The Jews, in the light of this fact cannot be stated as constituting a biological race.

Physical Differences are Often Due to Adaptations

Physical differences also cannot decide race:

These physical differences have resulted from the adaptations that human groups have made to the environments in which they lived. For example, population in tropical and subtropical areas tends to have dark skin, which protects them against harmful rays from the sun. Populations in high altitudes tend to have large lung capacity, which makes breathing easier for them.

Populations in very cold climates tend to have relatively short limbs, which enable them to conserve body heat. Further, there is no convincing evidence that different groups inherit different psychological characteristics, whether these be general traits such as intelligence, or more specific ones such as artistic ability.

The Concept of ‘Pure Race’ is a Myth:

All existing sociological and biological evidences point to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a “pure race”. Different population groups have been inbreeding for tens of thousands of years, and categories of “race” are only a creation ot observer, not of nature. As it is stated, there is a great deal of overlap among the so called races in the distribution of the physical traits such as skin colour, hair texture, blood type, nose shape, facial features, and so on. “Human groups have exchanged their genes through mating to such an extent that any attempt to identify ‘pure races’ is bound to be fruitless”.

Race Assumes Importance because it is a Social Fact, and not because, it is a Biological Fact:

All races are approximately alike in every important physical characteristic. The physical differences within the human species are very modest compared with the differences within many species – dogs or horses, for example. Many anthropologists have now abandoned the attempt to classify human species into races and consider the term “race” to have no scientific meaning at all.

It is true that physical differences between human groups constitute a biological fact. As such, they are of no particular interest to the sociologist. The sociologist is interested in race because race assumes importance as a social fact. It means, people attach meanings to the physical differences, real or imagined, between human groups. If people believe that a certain group forms a biological unity, they will act on the basis of that belief.

The members of such group tend to develop in-group feelings and a common loyalty and decide to intermarry with another. They also tend to develop “they” – feelings towards other groups, and may regard them as “different.”

What is important here is that the question, whether social beliefs about race have any biological basis or not, is irrelevant. Because, race does not have any biological basis. However, people’s beliefs about race influence race relations, for better or worse.

Many people, for example, consider the Jews, a race. From the biological point of view, this idea is baseless. Jews who were scattered over several nations have always interbred to some extent with their host populations and that the so called ‘original’ or ‘pure’ Jewish race is not found anywhere. Yet when any group is arbitrarily defined as a race, as Jews were in Germany, important consequences may follow.

Ethnic Groups: Meaning and Definition

Unlike the term race, the term “ethnic group” has a cultural meaning. It is regarded as a human group which has its national origin or distinctive cultural patterns. The term ethnic group or ethnicity signifies cultural features which may include – language, religion, national origin, dietary practices, a sense of common historical heritage, or other distinctive cultural traits.

According to Milton Gordon, the word ethnicity comes from the Greek “ethnos”, which mean people or nation. Thus, an ethnic group thinks of itself as a people or nation or is viewed by others as culturally different. Ethnicity is a sense of peoplehood or nationhood. The members of an ethnic group feel themselves set apart from other groups by a sense of belonging together, usually due to shared customs, beliefs, language or religion. Definition of Ethnic Group

1. Horton and Hunt:

The term ethnic group could be used to refer to – “any kind of group, racial or otherwise, which is socially identified as different and has developed its own subculture.”

2. Richard T. Schaefer:

“An ethnic group is set apart from others primarily because of its national origin or distinctive cultural patterns.”

3. David Popenoe:

An ethnic group is defined as “a group that is socially differentiated, has developed its own subculture, and has ‘a shared feeling of peoplehood.’ ”

4. J. Milton Yinger:

“An ethnic group is a segment of a large society whose members are thought, by themselves or others, to have a shared culture.”

Essential Aspects of Ethnic Groups:

J.M. Yinger’s definition, in particular, point out at three important elements of ethnic groups

1. Outsiders View of the Group:

An ethnic group is seen by others as a distinctive group on the basis of the following aspects: language, religion, race and country of origin. For example, the Palestinian Arabs living in Israel constitute an ethnic group. Because, unlike the Israelis, they speak Arabic and not Hebrew, they are Muslims and not Jews. Like all other Israelis, however, they are identified as Semitic peoples. They claim that the land of Israel was originally Palestine and it has been taken from them illegally.

2. Insiders View of Themselves:

People who belong, or feel belong to the group, consider themselves different from the society at large. In the above mentioned example, the Palestinian Arab’s differentiate themselves sharply from the Israel population.

3. Participation in Common Activities:

Members of an ethnic group take part together in activities that are centred in their shared traits and background activities. Example, people visiting “their own kind”, celebrating holiday’s special to them.

Other Aspects of the Ethnic Group

Membership through Biological Continuity:

Membership in an ethnic group is believed to be passed on from generation to generation, from parent to child. It is through this hereditary membership that the biological continuity assumes importance as an element in the definition of an ethnic group.

Maintenance of a Sense of Peoplehood:

Ethnic groups have a sense of “peoplehood” that is maintained within a larger society. The members of ethnic groups usually have migrated to a new nation or have been conquered by an invading population.

Race and Ethnic Groups: Main Differences

1. ‘Race’ as a concept refers only to physical characteristics, but the concept of ethnicity refers to cultural features which include religion, language, national origin, etc.

2. Unlike racial characteristics ethnic differences are culturally learnt, and not genetically inherited.

3. Racial characteristics are mostly inherited. But no ethnic group has any inborn cultural traits; It acquires them from its environment. For example, the Tamilians of India and the Srilankan Tamilians ancestry share the same genetic heritage, yet they display very different cultural norms and values.