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Minority group

"Minority" redirects here. For other uses, see Minority (disambiguation).

A minority or subordinate group is a sociological group that does not constitute a politically dominant plurality of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority — it may include any group that is disadvantaged with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power. To avoid confusion, some writers prefer the terms "subordinate group" and "dominant group" rather than "minority" and "majority", respectively.

In socioeconomics, the term "minority" typically refers to a socially subordination ethnic group (understood in terms of language, nationality, religion and/or culture). Other minority groups include people with disabilities, "economic minorities" (working poor or unemployed), "age minorities" (who are younger or older than a typical working age) and sexual minorities.

The term "minority group" often occurs alongside a discourse of civil rights and collective rights which gained prominence in the 20th century. Members of minority groups are prone to different treatment in the countries and societies in which they live. This discrimination may be directly based on an individual's perceived membership of a minority group, without consideration of that individual's personal achievement. It may also occur indirectly, due to social structures that are not equally accessible to all. Activists campaigning on a range of issues may use the language of minority rights, including student rights, consumer rights and animal rights. In recent years, some members of social groups traditionally perceived as dominant have attempted to present themselves as an oppressed minority, such as white, middle-class heterosexual males.[1]

Studies have consistently shown a correlation between negative attitudes or prejudice toward minorities and social conservatism (as well as the converse, positive attitutes and social progressivism).[2] Persecuted minority groups in recent history include Jews under Nazi Germany and African Americans in the Jim Crow period.


Sociology of minority groups

Sociologist Louis Wirth defined a minority group as "a group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination."[3] This definition includes both objective and subjective criteria: membership of a minority group is objectively ascribed by society, based on an individual's physical or behavioral characteristics; it is also subjectively applied by its members, who may use their status as the basis of group identity or solidarity. In any case, minority group status is categorical in nature: an individual who exhibits the physical or behavioral characteristics of a given minority group will be accorded the status of that group and be subject to the same treatment as other members of that group.

Racial or ethnic minorities

Every large society contains ethnic minorities. They may be migrant, indigenous or landless nomadic communities. In some places, subordinate ethnic groups may constitute a numerical majority, such as Blacks in South Africa under apartheid. International criminal law can protect the rights of racial or ethnic minorities in a number of ways.[4] The right to self-determination is a key issue.

Religious minorities

Persons belonging to religious minorities have a faith which is different to that held by the majority. Most countries of the world have religious minorities. It is now widely accepted in the west that people should have the freedom to choose their own religion, including not having any religion (atheism or agnosticism), and including the right to convert from one religion to another. However in many countries this freedom is constricted. For example in Egypt, a new system of identity cards[5] requires all citizens to state their religion - and the only choices are Islam, Christianity or Judaism (See Egyptian identification card controversy).

A 2006 study suggests that atheists constitute a religious minority in the United States, with researchers concluding: "Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry."[6]

Gender and sexual minorities

While in most societies, numbers of men and women are roughly equal, the status of women as a "subordinate" group has led some to equate them with minorities.[7] In addition, various gender variant people can be seen as constituting a minority group or groups, such as intersexuals, transsexuals, and gender nonconformists — especially when such phenomena are understood as intrinsic characteristics of an identifiable group.

An understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in the Western world since the 19th century. The acronym LGBT is currently used to group these identities together. The phrase sexual minorities can also be used to refer to these groups, and in addition may include fetishists, practitioners of BDSM, polyamorists and people who prefer sex partners of a disparate age. The term queer is sometimes understood as an umbrella term for all non-normative sexualities and gender expressions, but does not always seek to be understood as a minority; rather, as with many Gay Liberationists of the 1960s and '70s, it sometimes represents an attempt to uncover and embrace the sexual diversity in everyone.

Age minorities

The elderly, while traditionally influential or even (in a gerontocracy) dominant in the past, have in the modern age usually been reduced to the minority role of economically 'non-active' groups. Children can also be understood as a minority group in these terms, and the discrimination faced by the young is known as adultism. Discrimination against the elderly is known as ageism.

Various local and international statutes are in place to mitigate the exploitation of children, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as a number of organizations that make up the children's rights movement. The youth rights movement campaigns for social empowerment for young people, and against the legal and social restrictions placed on legal minors. Groups that advocate the interests of senior citizens range from the charitable (Help the Aged) to grass-roots activism (Gray Panthers), and often overlap with disability rights issues.

Disabled minorities

The Disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of disabled people as a minority or a coalition of minorities who are disadvantaged by society, not just as people who are disadvantaged by their impairments. Advocates of disability rights emphasise difference in physical or psychological functioning, rather than inferiority — for example, some people with autism argue for acceptance of neurodiversity, much as opponents of racism argue for acceptance of ethnic diversity. The deaf community is often regarded as a linguistic and cultural minority rather than a disabled group, and many deaf people do not see themselves as disabled at all. Rather, they are disadvantaged by technologies and social institutions that are designed to cater for the dominant group.

Minorities in law and government

In the politics of some countries, a minority is an ethnic group that is recognized as such by respective laws of its country and therefore has some rights that other groups lack. Speakers of a legally-recognized minority language, for instance, might have the right to education or communication with the government in their mother tongue. Countries that have special provisions for minorities include China, Canada, Germany, India, Romania, Russia, and the United Kingdom (which does maintain the concept of a British supra-nation, however).

Differing minority groups often are not given identical treatment. Some groups are too small or too indistinct compared to the majority, that they either identify as part of the same nation as the members of the majority, or they identify as a separate nation but are ignored by the majority because of the costs or some other aspect of providing preferences. For example, a member of a particularly small ethnic group might be forced to check "Other" on a checklist of different backgrounds, and consequently might receive fewer privileges than a member of a more defined group.

Many contemporary governments prefer to assume the people they rule all belong to the same nationality rather than separate ones based on ethnicity. The United States asks for race and ethnicity on its official census forms, which thus breaks up and organizes its population into different sub-groups, but primarily on racial origin rather than national one. Spain does not divide its nationals by ethnic group, although it does maintain an official notion of minority languages.

Some minorities are so relatively large or historically or otherwise important that the system is set up in a way to guarantee them comprehensive protection and political representation. As an example, the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes the three main nations, none of which constitute a numerical majority, as constitutive nations, see nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, other minorities such as Roma and Jews, are officially labelled as "others" and are excluded from many of these protections - for example they may not be elected to a range of high political positions including the presidency.[8]

The issue of establishing minority groups, and determining the extent of privileges they might derive from their status, is controversial. There are some who argue that minorities are owed special recognition and rights, while others feel that minorities are unjustified in demanding special rights, as this amounts to preferential discrimination and could hamper the ability of the minority to integrate itself into mainstream society - perhaps to the point at which the minority follows a path to separatism or supremacism. In Canada, some feel that the failure of the dominant English-speaking majority to integrate French Canadians has given rise to Quebec separatism.

Affirmative action

Main article: affirmative action

One particularly controversial issue is affirmative action. This can be, for example, a government programme to provide immigrant or minority groups with extra teaching in the majority language, so that they are better able to compete for places at university or for jobs. These may be considered necessary because the minority group in question is socially disadvantaged. Another form of affirmative action is quotas, where a percentage of places at university, or in employment in public services, are set aside for minority groups. This is arguably not the most ideal form of affirmative action, as it can be perceived as minorities being granted special privileges that the majority does not enjoy. In its worst form it can lead to so-called positive discrimination - where for example an individual of minority status is given preference for a place at a university over a more or equally-qualified non-minority person.

See also

External links

Categories: Sociology | Social groups | Voting theory | Minorities | Human rights | Disability rights | Women's rights | Linguistic rights | Youth rights

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