Race Talk:  From Biology to Social Science and Back again

Race Talk: From Biology to Social Science and Back again

Karim Murji (Open University)

The philosopher Joshua Glasgow once wrote that, ‘When I first mention to civilian friends and students that many academics think race is nothing but an apparition, one common reaction is incredulity’. As he adds, this ‘departure from conventional wisdom…might make academics appear to be unglued from the real world’ (2009: 4).

It does indeed appear odd when considered in light of the past year which witnessed mass protests in response to the deaths of black men at the hands of the police in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York. Putting forward the view that race is little more than a construction or merely an idea might indeed make social scientists seems detached from reality.

At the same time, a recent report by the Runnymede Trust on Local ethnic inequalities, and using categories derived from the 2001 Census, found that over a 10 year period racial or ethnic inequality matters: • For minorities as a whole, education inequality worsened in nearly half of all districts in England and Wales between 2001 and 2011. • Local ethnic inequalities in terms of higher levels of unemployment for ethnic minorities than the White British are most widespread for the Mixed group, the Black group and the Asian group. • Health inequality is most severe for the Mixed group, which fares worse in terms of health than the White British group in the majority of districts. • Housing inequality for the Black group has worsened between 2001 and 2011 in terms of the average level of absolute inequality in overcrowding across districts and the proportion of districts with a higher incidence of overcrowding compared with the White British group.

So, in the criminal justice, social policy and political worlds, the reality of race as a key marker of social inequality seems evident. Yet, in the main, academics and social scientists take it as a truism that there is no such thing as race, or that it is merely an idea. How have we got here?

Considering the messy, contradictory and murderous history of race thinking and racial classifications, social scientists have good reasons to take issue with the idea of race. Investigations under the banner of science have produced a multitude of racial classifications, ranging from three to ten to thirty categories in which human beings are subdivided according to definable physical characteristics. The variability of the groups demarcated, and of the varied phenotypical characteristics used to denote race, signals its basis in historical and social processes rather than unvarying rules of biology. So, rather than being fixed in nature it is the cultural variability of ideas about race that indicate its socially constructed character.

For much of the twentieth century and, particularly after the Nazi Holocaust and the 1951 UNESCO statement on race, there has been a general scientific consensus that race is not a scientific category. Human genetic variation was greater within the ‘same’ racial group rather than between ‘races’. Indeed, in 2000, the mapping of the Human Genome Project seemed to arrive at the same conclusion in showing that that the concept of race has no scientific or genetic basis.

Yet in the decade since then, there has been the development of specific drugs for particular, seemingly ‘racial’, populations – the best-known is still BiDil, a combination of two existing medicines for treating heart failure which has received support, following a clinical trial, from a range of black groups in the US. It became the first medical product to be approved in the USA specifically for a particular racial or ethnic group, African-Americans.

Furthermore, the trade in race-specific products moves on—from particular vitamins to jogging shoes as well as uses of forensic DNA in the law courts and its uses in tracing popular genealogy and ancestry. Race, in its scientific sense, has been reinvigorated by science, especially genetics. Social scientists have viewed these developments as ways in which race is being ‘re-biologised’ at a molecular level, and as another variant of 19th Century scientific racism. However, to what extent these developments should be seen in terms of the continuity of racial ideas since the eugenics movement, or as a departure from them, is debatable.

It does seem that the question of the ‘reality’ of race now occurs in a different, sub-molecular, space to the blood-and-bones discourses established in the nineteenth century and continued, in some form, in twentieth-century arguments around differential sports and educational attainment. Genetic science has turned from what lies on the surface of the body to what lies underneath.

One rationale behind the social scientific rejection of biologically based thinking about race is that it implied that racial differences are fixed in nature and immutable. Racial ideas of this sort do make reference to human biology and nature but they do not always straightforwardly invoke fixity or permanence. What seems to be fixed, in science, may actually allow a measure of malleability and change.

Epigenetics is one recent example of that. While the genome is inherited and does not change, except for mutations, the epigenome is the result of the genome interacting with the environment. This shows that the social environment can become embodied as a biological and developmental pattern trans-generationally. In the case of the greater incidence of premature and low-birth-weight births among African-American mothers in the US, this means that there is a consequence for developmental pathways continuing into adulthood and across generations. While culturalist approaches – which tend to blame individuals for their own circumstances – may attribute it to maternal behaviour patterns, it can also be argued that the main predictors of low birth weights are factors such as racism, discrimination and stress, which are structural issues beyond individual control; this, therefore, calls for social and economic changes. Thus, ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are more inter-twined than a straightforward rejection of biology admits, although the implications are as much to do with social policy rather than biology.

So these developments across the natural and social sciences call for a more-detailed understanding of the relationship between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ realities. Social scientists arguing that race is not real because it is not founded in biology clearly cede too much ground to natural science as a basis for determining what is real. Social science arguments for avoiding any suggestion of biology in race maintain that to do so smacks of essentialism, a view which rather overlooks the essentialist view of biology and science sometimes found among social scientists.

The common argument for putting ‘race’ in quote marks is that the word needs to demarcated/put into scare quotes so that it is known that ‘we’ are not treating race as real; this implies a ‘they’ who still believe the common sense view that it must be biologically based. Imputing positions to an undifferentiated ‘other’ is an oddly orientalising move from socially progressive social scientists. A corresponding view that failing to put race into quote marks means that it must be being treated as real fails to address what kind of social reality it may have, as well as implying that race could only be ‘real’ if it had some basis in nature.

Social scientists can indeed take race to be real in a social rather than a biological sense. Glasgow makes a distinction between realism and anti-realism. He identified two variants of realism – biological realism and constructivism or social constructionism. This latter perspective suggests that something like race may be real because, even if it has no biological basis, social and historical practices and construction over long periods make it real in social terms.

However, Glasgow rejects this view. Referring to Du Bois view that race involves both a ‘badge of colour’ and a set of socio-historical relations, Glasgow argues that, because constructivists usually tie racial identifiers and race-making processes to physical differences, they continue to refer to race as a visible physical feature. While his own anti-realist perspective can accept that there are real social kinds, Glasgow maintains that race is not one of those things because, while race is not biologically real, constructivist arguments are unable to show that they can advance a notion of race that has no referent linked to biology. He therefore suggests that the word race should only be used if it is demarcated with an asterisk – race*, which is much the same as ‘race’ in quote marks. This takes us almost full circle and perhaps, signals that as much attention could be devoted to arguing about what counts as ‘real’.

At the same time there are established ways of discussing race without getting caught up in this debate. One route is to consider race through the idea of ‘racialization, the process of signification invoked in relations of domination. This has the advantage of taking us beyond the focus on visible minorities demarcated by skin colour, as Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe, or European voluntary workers scheme following the Second World War, as well as people of African-Caribbean and south Asian origins have all been racialised in ways that drew on and combined elements of biological and cultural separateness. This stresses that race making is a process that draws on both biological and cultural elements. In this way we can speak of racialised groups rather than races.

This approach can open up analyses of the ways in which race is summoned and mobilised in racist imaginaries that position racialized groups as inferior, other or different. Both historical and contemporary scholarship point to the ways in which race and racism are articulated in specific and wider contexts – for instance, the war on terror and global racisms, debates around slavery and reparations, unequal development and exploitation and the policy and politics of anti-discrimination measures. The focus of this approach – on effects rather than definitions highlight the dynamism of racism and social inequalities founded on ethnicity and race. In turn, such work can be significant if it speaks to the wider public and political contexts in which race matters – such as the examples this article opened with – and make academics more glued to the real world.

Finney, N and Lymperopoulou, K (2014) Local Ethnic Inequalities, London: Runnymede Trust.
Glasgow, J (2009) A Theory of Race, London: Routledge.
Murji, K and Solomos, J (2005) Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Karim Murji is based in the Sociology department at the Open University.   His latest books are Race Critical Public Scholarship (co-edited with Gargi Bhattacharyya, Routledge, 2014) and Theories of Race and Ethnicity (co-edited with John Solomos, Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is a co-editor of the journal Sociology.