History Of The Concept of Race Research Paper

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All societies resort to the use of genealogy. The genealogical myth is the first form of historical thought and metaphysical enquiry. The concept of race dominated modes of thought when research into the origins of man developed in scientific terms. From this point of view, the classification of all living beings by the Swedish scientist Karl Linne (1707–78) was a significant event. Man, or homo sapiens, was classified according to species, gender, and class, as were other living beings. From this point onwards, interpretation of the history of humanity was considered in terms of race until the 1930s.

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Since the 1930s, most biologists have criticized the notion of race, arguing that, even if phenotypic variations are genetically determined, there is no general classification of human beings according to the category of race. ‘The concept of race has lost all its value’ (Jacob 1981).

Biologists and social scientists employ the term in different ways. Biologists inquire whether humans are divided into racial categories and whether belonging to a particular race has effects on behavior. Social scientists are less interested in whether the idea of race is well founded or not and instead focus on the social of consequences of the fact that man believes that racial groups exist. The main themes of their research are as follows: social relationships which are thought of in terms of race; the consequences of the belief that races exist on social relations and even on political organization as a whole. Although today race no longer has any meaning for biologists, the belief that there is a white race and a black race has had and still continues to have social consequences. Sociologists argue, according to Thomas’ theorem, that if men refer to a situation or phenomenon as real, its consequences become real.

1. The Notion Of Race Before The Science Of The Races

The term race predates the emergence of racial theories claiming to be scientific. From the sixteenth century onwards, the British interpreted their history in these terms. They claimed that their political genius was due to their Saxon blood ties and the superiority of the Germanic race. So, according to them, William the Conqueror was seen to have imposed the Norman yoke upon free Anglo-Saxon peoples. If the parliament had asserted its rights against the Stuart Monarchy during the Glorious Revolution in 1688, then this was because the British were Germanic, in the way that Tacite had described them: free, asserting their liberty by limiting sovereign power (Banton 1977).

Thought in terms of race took up old representations and themes, in the name of science. The stigmatization of blacks already was current during the Antiquity period. According to a sixth-century statement attributed to Jesus: ‘the children of Israel are among those people on the same level as Negroes- ….’ The ‘Purity of Blood-ties Statutes,’ introduced in Spain after the Reconquitsa and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492, established social categories based on ‘blood’ by distinguishing between pure-blooded Old Christians and the New Christians: Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism, yet whose blood still remained ‘impure.’ A biological defect, unerasable even by baptism, was therefore passed on from generation to generation. This system of stigmatization did not, however, make any claims to scientific truth, which would become the case from the end of the eighteenth century onwards.

Racist thought developed more in English and German-speaking countries in particular. However, although thought in terms of race had less effect in France, the quarrel between two races, or in other words, the myth of two French peoples developed from the sixteenth century onwards. The noble classes claimed that the fact that they were of Germanic blood justified the freedom and privilege they enjoyed, the masses, being made up of descendents of the Gauls who had been defeated by the German invaders. Even Montesquieu, subscribing to this explanation, referred to the ‘former Germans’ as our fathers, and praised their admirable simplicity and traditions of liberty and independence.

2. The Century Of Racial Ideas

Genealogical myth took on a new meaning during the modern period which saw the development of scientific ambition in fields such as physical anthropology and biology (Guillaumin 1972). Feelings and attitudes which had always been expressed towards certain stigmatized groups in the past were now reinterpreted and stamped with the scientifically legitimate trademark. Classic racist thought became fully established from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, as was the classification of living beings, which culminated in erasing the philosophical or religious distinctions between man, gifted with reason, responsibility, and thus liberty and other living beings.

This approach was revived with the development of social Darwinism. For the Darwin theorists, the decisive influence was biological and biology was defined by race. They believed that hostility between different races was natural and that the mixing of races led to the decline of the species concerned. They were obsessed by the need to preserve racial purity, fearing the dangers of intermarriage and its consequences, namely decline (Gobineau 1853). In order to define races, it became common to take measurements of the cranium and the angle of the nose, etc. It was scientifically claimed that blond dolichocephalic races were superior to brown-haired bracchycephalic peoples.

Race gradually appeared to be the factor that explained all historical phenomena. According to Robert Knox (1791–1862), ‘Human character, individual and national, is traceable solely to the nature of that race to which the individual or nation belongs’ (Banton 1977). In France, Gustave Le Bon (1841– 1931) wrote in 1894 that ‘different races are unable to feel, think and act in the same manner, and subsequently are also unable to understand one another.’ The revolutions of 1848, which can be seen as political events, par excellence, were explained by Gobineau in terms of race. The Aryan myth was used by the British in order to legitimise the colonisation of India. Walter Scott explained the conflict between the Scottish and the English by their different ‘blood.’ The concept of race was also used as an argument for all nationalist demands. These interpretations conformed to the scientism of the times and satisfied the human need for one sole explanation of the diversity and complexity encountered in the social world.

The word racism was first used at the end of the 1930s to refer to the doctrine which claimed that race determined culture. However, the theory predated the emergence of the term itself. This theory can be summarized by the two following claims: first, that human races exist; they are biologically different and therefore will always be unequal, and second, that there is a necessary link between biological characteristics and social behavior. In other words, the biological determines the social. There is an analytical distinction between race and racism. It is possible to argue that different races exist, without recourse to the biological determinism and essentializing ideas which characterize racist thought. Central to racist thought is the notion that races exist but above all that history and human behavior are determined by race. Some thinkers who believed that races did exist still criticized racist ideas. On the other hand, those with anti-Semitic views did not necessarily refer to the ‘Jewish race’ in justification of their hostility towards Jews. There are also those who do not believe in the existence of races but still conceive of social relations in a deterministic manner by explaining relations between people in terms of their culture, their class, or their gender. Nevertheless, it is equally true that thinking in terms of race has, more often than not, led to racist ideas.

The interpretation of historical events in terms of race has often been linked to the need to justify European domination over the rest of the world (Park and Burgess 1924). This is the case of Marxist thinkers in particular. Cox, for example, claims that race relations first emerged in 1493 when the borders showing the limits of Spanish and Portuguese control in the Americas were first marked out (Cox 1948). Yet the negative representations of black-skinned peoples in relation to whites by far predated the age of European expansionism. The development of racist thought cannot be linked to one sole cause but must be seen as the result of a number of converging factors. What is remarkable is the capacity of deterministic racist thought to renew and reinvent itself throughout the different periods of history.

3. Development Of The Social Science Critique

Although the first American sociologists justified slavery, social scientists have, at different stages, criticized the concept of racial determinism. Max Weber clearly denounced racial explanations of historical events. ‘That there exists today, only one precise and concrete factor, relevant to Sociology, which clearly and permanently reduces any given sociological category down to innate or hereditary characteristics, whilst claiming that another category cannot ever not possess those same qualities, I categorically deny, and I will continue to deny this until it is proven right before my eyes’ (Weber 1974, p. 120).

The work of the Chicago school sociologists (such as Charles S. Johnson, John Dollard, Allison Davies, E. Franklin, and even Gunar Myrdal whose work was based on the Chicago school’s research) marked another stage in the social science critique. Through study of the ‘assimilation’ of various populations in American society, they replaced the notion of race with that of relations between races or race relations. Race, in the biological sense of the term, was replaced by a social definition: race became a social category which contributed to defining an individual’s position in society, according to his origins which were inferred by certain biological characteristics. However, it is clear that this category is only acknowledged if society accepts that ‘race’ is meaningful. In this way, it was henceforth taken as given by all sociologists that it is racism that creates race, not vice versa.

The rediscovery of the weight of ethnicity by American sociologists in the 1960s led to a redefinition of different groups in terms of ‘ethnic groups’: an historical definition thus replaced a biological definition. However, these sociologists did not all unanimously agree that Afro-Americans or the native-Americans constituted a group like any other. It was argued that the term ‘ethnic group’ was perhaps no more than just a euphemism or hypocrisy as it tended to obscure the stigmatization, segregation, and discrimination which Afro-Americans and native-Americans had suffered as a result of their race. Wasn’t ‘ethnic’ anything else than ‘racial’? Shouldn’t race relations be distinguished from ethnic relations, as individuals could abandon their ethnic group but could not escape their racial group?

The sociologists of race relations continue, however, to use the concept of race as though races do actually exist, and the sociologists of ethnicity as though ethnic groups are static, fixed entities. When, from the 1960s onwards, the term ethnic group took over from race, it continued to imply a certain hereditary link. Furthermore, both terms are closely linked to the American experience, a society made up of immigrants (ethnic groups), autochthonous peoples, and those brought over as slaves (racial groups). Should we not take into account the consequences of the critique of the sociology of race relations and stop claiming that the term race is meaningless, only to then use it continuously, even in the titles of scholarly journals? Is it not possible to reach a new stage by adopting the concept of historical collectivity? If, as Weber had already observed, those who we refer to as Afro-Americans in the United States make up a particular group, this is not due to the color of their skin, but rather because they consider themselves and are considered by others to be the descendents of Africans who were subjected to a certain historical experience, which makes them a particular historical collectivity (Schnapper 1998).

Societies use natural differences and relations as a way to organize relationships between people. This is the case for gender and relationships between parents and children. In the same way, human beings use the physical differences, thought of in terms of race, in order to establish and identify social roles. Sociological thought has progressively criticized the notion of race. The relations between the ‘races’ are now analyzed as part of the processes of inclusion and exclusion of the different social groups in a more general analysis of social structures and political legitimacy.


  1. Banton M P 1977 The Idea of Race. Tavistock, London
  2. Cox O C 1948 Caste, Class & Race. A Study in social Dynamics. Doubleday, New York
  3. Gobineau J A 1853 Essai sur l’inegalite des races. Gallimard, La Pleiade, Paris
  4. Guillaumin C 1972 L’ideologie raciste. Genese et langage actuel. Mouton, Paris and La Haye
  5. Jacob A 1981 La science face au racisme. In: Olender M (eds.) Le racisme, Mythes et sciences. Complexe, Brussels
  6. Park R E, Burgess E W 1924 Introduction to the Science of Sociology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  7. Schnapper D 1998 La Relation a l’autre. Au coeur de la pensee sociologique. Gallimard, Paris
  8. Weber M 1974 Max Weber et les theories bioraciales du Xxeme siecle. Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie 1: 115–26
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