Module 1. The Significance of Ethnic Studies


Social scientists use theories to study people. Theories help us examine and understand society including the social structure and social value people create and sustain to fulfill human needs. Theories provide an objective framework of analysis and evaluation for understanding the social structure including the construction of the cultural ideologies, values, and norms and their influence on thinking and behavior. Macro-level analysis studies large-scale social arrangements or constructs in the social world. The macro perspective examines how groups, organizations, networks, processes, and systems influences thoughts and actions of individuals and groups (Kennedy, Norwood, & Jendian, 2017). Micro-level analysis studies the social interactions of individuals and groups. The micro perspective observes how thinking and behavior influences the social world such as groups, organizations, networks, processes, and systems (Kennedy et al., 2017).

To understand the inequities in power and resources between racial-ethnic groups, we must understand the social, political, and economic structure of society. A macro-level perspective helps us understand the effect the social structure has on our life chances, opportunities, and challenges. Whereas a micro-level perspective focuses on interpreting individual or personal viewpoints and influences. Using only a micro-level perspective to understand racial-ethnic inequality leads to an unclear understanding of the world from singular bias perceptions and assumptions about people, social groups, and society (Carl, 2013). To study race and ethnic relations and inequality, we must analyze groups and societies not simple individuals.

Race and ethnic identity influence social status or position in society. Social status serves as a method for building and maintaining boundaries among and between people and groups. Status dictates social inclusion or exclusion resulting in stratification or hierarchy whereby a person’s position in society regulates their social participation by others. Racial-ethnic inequality is a circumstance of stratification where inequality is based on race and ethnic composition of the individual or group.

There are several structural factors that shape social stratification and intergroup relations in society. According to Farley (2010), there are seven characteristics of a society that effect majority-minority relations. The major influences include economics, politics, institutions, social and cultural characteristics, and history.

Table 1. Structural Factors of Social Position and Intergroup Relations

Structural Factor Description
Economic System Type of economy (i.e., capitalist, feudal, socialist, etc.) including methods of income and wealth distribution
Economic Production Labor, capital, goods and services to create and distribute products
Political System Type of politic structure, power relationships between groups, and degree of political freedom
Fundamental Institutions Characteristics of major institutions including family, education, and religion
Dominant Culture Controlling and imposed ideologies and value system
Cultural & Social Characteristics of Groups Customs, lifestyles, values, attitudes, aesthetics, language, education, religion, formal and informal rules, social organization, and material objects of each group
Historical association Past contact and interactions between racial-ethnic groups (i.e., voluntary or involuntary immigration, colonialism, segregation, etc.)
This material (Table 1) developed from concepts introduced by John E. Farley (2010) in Minority-Minority Relations (6th ed.) published by Prentice-Hall.

People may occupy multiple statuses in a society. At birth, people are ascribed status in alignment to their physical and mental features, race, and gender. In some societies, people may earn or achieve status from their talents, efforts, or accomplishments (Griffiths et al., 2015). Obtaining higher education or being an artistic prodigy often corresponds to high status. For example, a college degree awarded from an “Ivy League” university social weighs higher status than a degree from a public state college. Just as talented artists, musicians, and athletes receive honors, privileges, and celebrity status.

In addition, the social, political hierarchy of a society or region designates social status. Consider the social labels within class, race, ethnicity, gender, education, profession, age, and family. Labels defining a person’s characteristics serve as their position within the larger group. People in a majority or dominant group have higher status (e.g., rich, White, male, physician, etc.) than those of the minority or subordinate group (e.g., poor, Black, female, housekeeper, etc.). Overall, the location of a person on the social strata influences their social power and participation (Griswold, 2013). Individuals with inferior power have limitations to social and physical resources including lack of authority, influence over others, formidable networks, capital, and money.

Minority groups are defined as people who receive unequal treatment and discrimination based on social categories such as age, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, religious beliefs, or socio-economic class. Minority groups are not necessarily numerical minorities (Griffith et al., 2015). For example, a large group of people may be a minority group because they lack social power. The physical and cultural traits of minority groups “are held in low esteem by the dominant or majority group which treats them unfairly” (Henslin, 2011, p. 217). The dominant group has higher power and status in society and receives greater privileges. As a result, the dominant group uses its position to discriminate against those that are different. The dominant group in the United States is represented by White, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent (Doane, 2005). Minority groups can garner power by expanding political boundaries or through expanded migration though both efforts do not occur with ease and require societal support from both minority and dominant group members. The loss of power among dominant groups threatens not only their authority over other groups but also the privileges and way of life established by this majority.


man sitting in front of computer
Image by Mikael Blomkvist, Pexels is licensed under CC BY 4.0

People sometimes engage in status shifting to garner acceptance or avoid attention. DuBois (1903) described the act of people looking through the eyes of others to measure social place or position as double consciousness. His research explored the history and cultural experiences of the American slavery and the plight of Black folk in translating thinking and behavior between racial contexts. DuBois’ research helped social scientists understand how and why people display one identity in certain settings and another in different ones. People must negotiate a social situation to decide how to project their social identity and assign a label that fits (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Status shifting is evident when people move from informal to formal contexts. Our ethnic or cultural identity and practices are very different at home than at school, work, or church. Each setting demands different aspects of who we are and our place in the social setting.




To identify the function of intergroup dialogue in justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.


  1. Read the following article:
    Ford, K. A., & Lipkin, H. J. (2019). Intergroup dialogue facilitators as agents for change. New Directions for Student Leadership, 2019(163), 47-56.
  2. Explain how intergroup dialogue promotes communication and understanding about and across social categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, and other social group distinctions.
  3. Describe the ways intergroup dialogue can improve interracial interactions, relations, and social justice.


There are three major patterns of race and ethnic relations which influence the system of stratification in the United States. The paternalistic, rigid competitive, and fluid competitive intergroup relationships affect social status and life chances (Van den Berghe, 1958, 1978; Wilson, 1973, 1978; Farley, 2010). The first paternalistic pattern is ascribed at birth, based on racial composition, and determines one’s social status for life. Under this pattern, the roles and status of majority and minority groups are understood and supported through a system of “racial etiquette” with frequent contact between groups but the contact itself is unequal (Farley, 2010). In this relationship, the minority group is dependent on the majority, and there is no racial conflict or competition. Individuals who do not cooperate or break the norms are severely penalized.

The second rigid competitive pattern is also ascribed at birth, based on race. However, under this pattern majority and minority members compete in areas such as work and housing, and racial groups are segregated. As competition threatens the majority group, discrimination against the minority or subordinate group increases as well as intergroup conflict to instill power and assertiveness among the majority (Farley, 2010).

Lastly, in fluid competitive race relations, majority and minority group members are ranked on their own skills and abilities and able to pursue all in life. This pattern results in frequent interracial contact in work and business settings though groups live separately primarily among their own racial groups (Farley 2010). Nonetheless, most minorities have fewer resources to start and compete with majority group members as a result of historic racism and discrimination. The majority group dominates and controls the main systems and institutions to serve their own interests (Farley, 2010). In addition, competition and racial group conflicts increase when fewer resources such as jobs are available. Even when members of a minority group attain high status, racial stratification remains present within and outside the subordinate group.

According to Noel (1968), ethnocentrism, competition, and unequal power lead to racial-ethnic stratification. Ethnocentrism evaluates people and their culture from the perspective of one’s own cultural life. People tend to believe their life and way of living is the norm and judge others from that perspective. This attitude and mindset lend itself to categorizing people or assigning status based on the closeness and comfort to one’s own culture. The opportunity to exploit a group by another in competition over resources further creates a framework for social inequality. A competitive environment or atmosphere provides the opportunity for one group to benefit from the subordination of another (Farley, 2010). When a group is powerful enough to dominate or subordinate others, inequality further develops. A social structure of unequal power allows the control of one group over another solidifying racial-ethnic stratification.

The natural propensity of human behavior is to focus on self and those around us (Paul & Elder, 2005).  However, people do not always value others as they value self. Without guidance and support to appreciate and respect all humans, people lose concern for others. For example, a stratified society fortifies an egocentric ideology to win or survive at any cost. In the plight to obtain wealth or achieve success (i.e., education, health, resources, or money, etc.), people strategize and fight for an advantage. This thinking legitimizes prejudice, self-justification, and self-deception driven by ideas such as “I’m right,” “I need to earn a living,” “I work hard,” “I deserve it,” “I’m not hurting anyone,” “they don’t matter,” or “they don’t deserve it,” “they’re worthless,” and “they don’t belong here.”

A person’s reasoning or problem-solving skills is only as strong as their experience with an issue, topic, or situation. Life experience plays a significant role in the ability to critically think about issues of race and ethnicity. If you have limited experiences, your thought processes will be limited. If you are unaware or have limited knowledge about race, ethnicity, and the social world, then much of your thinking will have a focus on self or ego which lends itself to egocentric, ethnocentric, and sociocentric attitudes and behaviors.

Assessing other people and our surroundings is necessary for interpreting and interacting in the social world. When we think of only ourselves, without regard for the feelings and desires of others, we are egocentric or self-centered. The inability to understand another person’s view or opinion may be different than your own is egocentric. This cognitive bias is inflated when we judge others using our own cultural standards.

The practice of judging others through our own cultural lens is called ethnocentrism. This practice is a cultural universal meaning the behavior is common to all known human cultures throughout the world. People everywhere think their culture is true, moral, proper, and right (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). By its very definition, ethnocentrism creates division and conflict between social groups whereby mediating differences is challenging when everyone believes they are culturally superior, and their culture should be the standard for living. People justify or validate egocentric and ethnocentric thinking and behavior by reaffirming they are simply concerned with or centered on their own social group which is sociocentrism. Overall, the ego emphasizes self and the cultural superiority of one’s social group.




To build knowledge of and make connections about the attitudes of people towards different racial and ethnic groups and reflect on our own perceptions.


 1.  Study the Bogardus Social Distance Scale.

2.  Use the scale from 1 to 7 to show how close you feel to the different racial-ethnic groups listed below.

1 = as close relatives by marriage
2 = as your close personal friends
3 = as neighbors on the same street
4 = as coworkers in your occupation
5 = as citizens in your country
6 = as only visitors in your country
7 = you would exclude them from your country

Racial-Ethnic Groups

African Americans
Americans (White)
Indians (Asians)
Indians (Native Americans)
Other Latinos (exc. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans)
Puerto Ricans

3.  Compare your results to the sample of 2,916 college students who completed a similar study by Parillo and Donaghue (2005).

4.  Which groups do most people surveyed feel closest? Why do you think people feel close to these groups?

5.  Which groups do people feel most distant? Why do you think people feel distant to these groups?


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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