American sociologist Louis Wirth (1945, p. 347) defined minority groups 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”.
“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression” (Jefferson, 1801)
These words borrowed from Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address (4th March 1801) continue to hold a place of great relevance over two centuries after they were delivered by the third president of the United States of America. The 21st century has seen a steep rise in identity politics wherein individuals align themselves with groups representing their social/cultural communities instead of parties/organisations that own a broader purview. This is a direct result of social categorisation that stems from social distinctions of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, language, sexuality, etc. When such divisions are created, some social groups find themselves in the majority, while others form minorities. American sociologist Louis Wirth (1945, p. 347) defined minority groups 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”.
Society creates such categorisation objectively, based on an individual’s physical appearance or behaviour. It is important to note that the term “minority” is not simply a statistical measure of group membership but rather categorical. Individuals who are perceived as exhibiting behaviour characteristic of a particular minority group are accorded the title of a “minority”. Individuals who are members of minority groups are generally disenfranchised, hold little to no social power and live at the behest of decisive majorities.
Characteristics of Minority Groups
Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris (1958) opined that minorities could be identified by five distinct characteristics:
1. Unequal Treatment and Limited Power
Minority groups are often marginalised in their respective territories and have little to no say in governance owing to their virtual absence or limited presence in representative governance. The Dalit minority in India, for example, is socially ostracised, economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented.
2. Distinguishing Physical or Cultural Traits
Certain minority groups, primarily racial and ethnic minorities, are often identified using their physical features or cultural heritage. For example, the African-American population in the United States is determined using the colour of their skin. Similarly, the Bodo people of Assam are considered an ethnolinguistic minority that have a distinct shared language.
3. Involuntary Membership in the Group
As opposed to voluntary group membership, wherein a person consciously chooses to associate themselves with a particular group, involuntary membership is generally determined by birth or kinship. Members of minority groups are typically born into their social identity and therefore find it increasingly difficult to disassociate from it. The caste system in India, for example, segregates Hindus into various castes and sub-castes solely based on birth. Thus, an individual born into a Brahmin family will own the identity of a Brahmin, whereas one born into a Dalit family will be identified as a Dalit. Similarly, an individual does not choose their race, gender, sexuality, etc.
4. Awareness of Subordination
Members of minority groups are generally aware of their subordination in society. This goes beyond just the knowledge of being a subordinate group. Minorities are conscious about the fact that as a result of their social identity, they are subjected to unequal social, economic and political opportunity. They recognise that they have narrower access to education, health care and other necessary infrastructure.
5. High-rate of In-group Marriage
Minority groups tend to practice endogamy, i.e., to marry within their group/community. Endogamy is a common practice amongst tribal population across the world and also caste minorities in India. Part of the reason for this in-group marriage is the desire to preserve the gene pools and ancestry in certain tribes. Another explanation, at least within the Indian context, is the social prohibition of inter-caste marriages in an attempt to restrict the social mobility of the lower castes and contain the social power amongst the upper castes.
Types of Minority Groups
Based on this definition of minority groups, we can categorise minority groups into four broad types:
1.Racial and Ethnic Minorities:
The terms “race” and “ethnicity”, often used interchangeably, refer to two distinct types of social identity. While the term “race” defines individuals using their physical characteristics such as skin colour and facial structure, “ethnicity” points to a shared heritage, language and even culture. Ethnic and racial minorities exist in nation-states across the globe; however, they are not always determined by apparent numerical differences. As stated earlier, the term “minority” is often used to refer to groups lacking social or political power. For example, the blacks in South Africa, during the apartheid, owned the numerical majority in the nation-state; however, they were still subjected to institutionalised racism by the white minority.
Ethnic and racial minority populations in any region are usually nomadic populations, recent migrants or indigenous populations. The most typical examples of ethnic/racial minorities would be the aboriginal and tribal populations of previously colonised nations. Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans in the United States and the Maoris in New Zealand are a few such indigenous groups that have been given the status of minorities.
Read: Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
2. Gender and Sexuality Minorities
These typically refer to groups that identify themselves as members of the LGBTQ+ community and includes people who identify as transgender, gender non-binary, homosexual, bisexual, etc. In certain societies, women are also considered a minority group despite their numerical strength because of their status as an oppressed group. People with non-normative gender and sexual identities have historically been denied equal rights and protection under the law. While Western society has been working towards inclusivity for the past century, Eastern cultures have only now begun to engage in conversations that recognise non-normative identities.
3. Religious Minorities
Minority groups defined by religion are those whose religious identity is subscribed to by a numerically weaker section of society and is different from that of the majority of the population that often holds power. While several nations worldwide allow their citizens the freedom to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination, there are others such as Myanmar and China that restrict such freedom through cultural bias. For example, the Uyghur Muslims in China and the Rohingyas in Myanmar are recognised as minority groups. As a result, they have been subjected to deplorable institutionalised discrimination, injustice, ill-treatment and horror in their respective states.
Also Read: Problems of Religious Minorities
4. People with Disabilities
Despite being a hotly debated matter, people with disabilities – physical or psychological – have been found to form the largest minority group globally, with over one billion people living with some form of disability. Neuropsychiatric disorders, sensory impairment, loss of physical mobility, etc., are regarded as causes of disability.
People with disabilities are not only disadvantaged by their impairments but also by society. People with disabilities are at a higher risk of being subjected to violence, disaster and poverty and therefore must be given due consideration under the law.
Problems Faced by Minorities
The difficulties faced by members of minority groups are trifold – social, economic and political. Firstly, members of minority groups have to grapple with the idea of social identity. It becomes challenging for them to pave a path for themselves in a society ruled by a majority with evidently different social, cultural, and behavioural practices. Their source of identity, which is their means to navigate the world, also becomes a cause for discrimination and injustice. Additionally, the minority community is continually deprived of equal opportunity to education, employment, health care and social welfare. Such unequal treatment acts as an impediment to social mobility and dignified existence. Furthermore, social and economic insecurity becomes commonplace in the lives of minorities. Their weak numerical presence and their inability to access equal opportunities for growth and well-being become a source of anxiety and vulnerability. Such marginalisation also leads to the deterioration of the physical and mental health of minorities.
The scapegoat theory in psychology refers to the tendency to hold someone else accountable for one’s own problems. When applied to sociology, we can see that such scapegoating gives rise to prejudice and discrimination towards the group or person being held accountable. Scapegoating is a widespread occurrence among minority groups. Majority groups frequently project unjustified aggression onto subordinate groups. Adolf Hitler, most famously, is guilty of such action during the 20th century. He blamed the Jewish population for Germany’s social and economic struggles and consequently fuelled an ethnic genocide against the Jews. Scapegoating is also the primary reason for hostility towards immigrants.
In a world where our social identity is intricately connected to our understanding of the Self and how we view and perceive our social and physical environments, it becomes imperative to engage in discourse about the rights and freedoms of minorities. The denial of opportunity and oppression of individuals that stems from prejudice and stereotyping has dangerous consequences for communities. Educating ourselves about the plight of minorities and the factors that influence such discrimination is the first step to changing the narrative around subordinate groups.
Berbrier, M. (2002, June). Disempowering Minorities: A Critique of Wilkinson’s ‘Task for Social Scientists and Practitioners’. ScholarWorks at WMU. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/jssw/vol29/iss2/2/.
Jefferson, T. (1801, March 4). Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters. Extract from Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, 4 Mar. 1801 [Quote] | Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters. https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1326.
Santos, D. J. da S., Palomares, N. B., Normando, D., & Quintão, C. C. A. (2010, June 1). Race versus ethnicity: differing for better application. Dental Press Journal of Orthodontics. https://www.scielo.br/j/dpjo/a/cpSn3rmDvrkMNTHj7bsPxgh/?lang=en.
Introduction to Sociology. Lumen. (n.d.). https://courses.lumenlearning.com/cochise-sociology-os/chapter/minority-groups/.
Mondal, P. (2014, March 25). 3 Main Problems faced by Minorities In India. Your Article Library. https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/3-main-problems-faced-by-minorities-in-india/31418.
Introduction to Sociology. Lumen. (n.d.). https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sociology/chapter/racial-ethnic-and-minority-groups/