On Distinction
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Ann Morning, assistant professor of sociology at New York University, has published a number of articles having to do with race and ethnicity, especially racial classification. Her most recent work is "From Sword to Plowshare: Using Race for Discrimination and Antidiscrimination in the United States" (with Daniel Sabbagh), forthcoming in International Social Science Journal.

In 2001 and 2002, I interviewed over 40 university professors in biology and anthropology about their definitions of the term “race.” Their views varied widely. Almost 40 percent of these academics took what can be called an “essentialist” view: they described races as groups of people who share certain innate, inherited biological traits. In contrast, over 60 percent held a “constructionist” perspective: they argued that races do not correspond to patterns of human biological variation, but rather that racial groupings are “constructed” through social processes that take place in particular historical, political and economic contexts. In other words, the jury was out on the scientific nature of race.

Despite their differing conclusions about race, however, the scientists I interviewed largely shared the same fundamental ideas about the nature of human biological variation. They agreed that human beings vary biologically, both genetically and phenotypically (e.g., in surface appearance); that this variation is shaped by evolutionary processes; that the patterns of variation are linked to geographic locale; and that each variant usually shades gradually into the next, without sharp, crisp borders separating people with trait A from those with trait B (think for example of how skin colors change gradually, not abruptly, over geographic spaces). None took the extreme view that is sometimes attributed to constructionists—namely, that there is “no difference” between any two human beings. Nor did anyone believe the old essentialist view that there are clear cut, sharply-defined discrete race groups, all of whose members share some trait (or traits) that no members of other races share. And even though not all of my interviewees brought up social processes of racial classification—for example, the political and bureaucratic measures that alter our census racial categories from one decade to the next, or the 20th-century court cases that ruled whether Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Armenian, Syrian, Mexican and other petitioners could be classified as “white”—I don’t think any of them would deny these are part of our historical record.

With a basic consensus, then, on human biological diversity and its gradual pattern of variation across the globe, as well as some awareness of the sociopolitical influences on historical racial classification, how could these professors not come to a common conclusion about the existence of biological races in our species? With a commonly-accepted set of facts, why did they arrive at different opinions about whether the groupings we call races actually exist “in nature,” independent of our study of them, or whether these groups are ones that we humans construct, guided by our cultural presuppositions, and then impose like an artificial grid on the fuzzy reality of human diversity?

The divide I encountered centered on the notion of “distinction.” That word and its variants were integral to my interviewees’ discussions of their understandings of race. One biology professor described races as “subpopulations within a species that are characterized by a suite of distinctive traits.” In this essentialist view, there are recognizable subpopulations that objectively share common traits. Another biologist saw racial categorization as involving “false, overly stringent, or overly clear, unrealistically clear, distinctions between groups.” In this constructionist view, racial distinctions are “false” or “unrealistic”—they do not mirror objective biological reality.

Race, Human Biological Variation, and Distinctiveness

Dr. Leroi’s article also stumbles on the problem of “distinction.” This is perhaps most apparent in the loose array of what he presents as “races”: If “Negritos,” Europeans, Basques, Ibos and Castilians are all races, then exactly what tools or taxonomic principles are guiding the identification of races? In other words, how are we measuring what counts as a “racial” distinction?

This question really entails a series of inquiries. First, which indicators do we choose to measure racial difference? How much difference do we believe signals “racial” distinctiveness? And finally, do we decide in advance which groups of people make up races, and then look selectively for evidence that corroborates our classification scheme? Or do we first choose traits that we think are appropriate measures of race, and then see which clusters of human beings share them or not? In short, measuring racial difference—like virtually every other type of scientific inquiry—involves a series of judgment calls: conscious decisions that govern how we collect and analyze complex data. Racial differences do not just “jump out” unambiguously from biological data.

The strategy of identifying races by taking multiple indicators into account—for example, not just skin color but also hair texture and eye shape—offers a good example of the decisions and ambiguities involved in the process of distinguishing. First, Dr. Leroi suggests that a single trait like skin color is insufficient for delineating races because it would not distinguish Senegalese individuals from Solomon Islanders. The unspoken presumption is that a good measure of race would categorize the former separately from the latter. But another researcher might not agree. In the first part of the 20th century, anthropologists would have classified both groups as members of the “Ethiopian” or “Negroid” race, with the Senegalese representing its “African” component and the Solomon Islanders its “Negrito” or “Oceanic Pygmy” wing. And yet another researcher might expect a racial framework to be able to distinguish west African Senegalese from the Sudanese to their east.

Second, the multiple-trait approach to outlining races—a kind of triangulation process—does not eliminate the question of which traits should be selected to make this determination. A handpicked collection of characteristics like skin and hair color, eye and nose shape, might well delineate the groups that we commonly understand to be races: Africans, Europeans, Asians, Native Americans, and perhaps Australians. But we could also choose other traits to analyze together, and come up with a different picture of which races exist in the world. If we overlaid a map of the sickle-cell trait (found in malarial areas like western and central Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and South Asia) on top of that for lactose intolerance (likely distinguishing northwest Europe from the rest of the world), would we still obtain a clear picture of black, white, yellow and red races? And which would be better indicators of difference: surface traits like skin color or those related to blood and digestion?

The choice of characteristic(s) used to measure race has an effect not just on which groups emerge as races, but how many. As Dr. Leroi acknowledges, the multiple-trait procedure for triangulating racial groupings could yield countless races: “Study enough genes in enough people and one could sort the world’s population into 10, 100, perhaps 1,000 groups, each located somewhere on the map.” Incorporating more information makes it possible to refine our racial categories to smaller and smaller detailed groupings. Yet even with the complex biological data now available, it is rare to hear calls to do away with our 18th-century Linnaean taxonomy of four or five races. As a result, the scientific debate that effectively emerges about race is whether or not to accept the longstanding Western framework of black, white, yellow, and red races as a good approximation of human diversity.

Finally, there is a more basic decision involved in trying to compile proof of the existence of biological races. For some researchers, it is sufficient to determine in advance how many and which groups are races, and then seek the data to support this presumed breakdown. The genetic genealogy industry operates in this way, pre-identifying three or so races, sampling the DNA of a few hundred people they believe to be representative of those races, and then sifting through the genetic data to find similarities between members of the same race while discarding the evidence of genetic traits that are shared across these races. The result is a genetic profile for each “race.” In a similar vein, disease prevalence statistics have been interpreted as proof of the existence of continental races. The widely-shared assumption is that if one can detect genetic differences between any two groups—African Americans and European Americans, Koreans and Japanese, south Indians and north Indians, Basque and Icelanders—then we have discovered “racial” differences. But such discoveries do not tell us anything about where the boundaries lie of the larger races that these subgroups supposedly represent. Does a genetic difference between African Americans and European Americans represent just dissimilarity between those two groupings, or does it tell us something about the huge groups we call the “black” and “white” races, which include Ivorians, Afro-Caribbeans, Ethiopians and Angolans on the one hand, and Swedes, Spaniards, Greeks and Poles on the other?

The varied decisions that go into scientists’ measurement of racial difference lend support to the idea that we don’t “find” races so much as we “construct” them. There are no given, objective racial boundaries, but rather, we determine which information should be used to classify races—and how—and as a result, the type and number of races will vary. As has been the case since Linnaeus and Blumenbach elaborated some of the first taxonomies of racial groups in the 18th century, there is no agreement among experts on the true number or boundaries of the world’s races. But if these problems of making distinctions are perhaps the bedrock issue that separates academic essentialists from constructionists, the more heated controversy revolves around the related question of how social context shapes our attempts to draw racial boundaries.

Race Distinctions in Social Context

Dr. Leroi suggests that race is “merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences.” This is astonishing for someone who, according to armandleroi.com, grew up partly in South Africa and did graduate work in the United States. Since its emergence in the imperial age of the 16th and 17th centuries, race has been first and foremost a way of talking about political, social, and economic differences, rights, and membership. Race differences distinguished the citizen from the alien, the slave from the free, the property owner from the owned. Today, race is hardly the stuff of dispassionate technical jargon. Race is a daily newspaper topic not because of DNA configurations but because of social configurations. Enduring beliefs in the characteristics of different races make race a way for us to talk about crime and innocence, worth and worthlessness, the monied and the disadvantaged.

Even to scientists, race has clearly meant more than just biology. In his early human taxonomy, Linnaeus described Homo sapiens Afer (African Homo sapiens) as “crafty, indolent, negligent; anoints himself with grease; governed by caprice,” and Homo sapiens Europeaeus as “gentle, acute, inventive; …governed by laws”; race was a guide not just to physical difference but to the valuation of temperament, ability, and behavior. Moreover, social and biological scientists have long been active participants in the development of race-related public policies. Their evidence of black inferiority helped justify slavery in the face of abolitionist protest; their conclusion that the unfit American Indian race was doomed to perish in the presence of the superior white race made the results of a concerted public campaign of extermination seem like a “natural” Darwinian outcome; and their early-20th-century discoveries of important differences between the crania of native and immigrant groups fueled the eventual shutdown of immigration from eastern and southern Europe. From these examples, it seems clear that the cultural context of the time had a hand not just in the research results that scientists obtained, but even in the questions they asked in the first place. In the same way, we have to ask how the contemporary debate on the nature of race relates to the cultural outlook and the policy dilemmas of our times.

As it turns out, we don’t have to look far to find connections between contemporary scientific conceptions of race and broader social and policy debates. Both constructionists and essentialists see their views as bearing on matters of public interest. In my interviews, scientists who argued that races were socially constructed believed that claims of the “natural” or objective existence of races have been used for destructive purposes in the past, and had the potential to support racist policies in the future. For example, claims of innate, racial differences in intelligence might discourage policymakers from addressing racial inequalities in access to quality education.

Those who lean toward an essentialist perspective on race may have an even broader range of social or policy concerns. Several interviewees expressed the concern that constructionism amounted to an attack on or rejection of science. Similarly, they perceived the constructionist interpretation of race as a denial of an important truth; hence Leroi’s exhortation that “Scientists should admit that there is such a thing as race.” The rejection of science in general or the truth about race in particular then represents a roadblock to the advancement of scientific knowledge—for example, about human evolutionary history or about critical medical disorders to which we would all like to find solutions. It is particularly important for essentialists to stress their approach as promising health benefits for the people who have traditionally been disadvantaged by the use of race categories (and scientific research); they are quite aware of the history of racial classifications and often take pains to disassociate themselves from beliefs about the inferiority or superiority of particular races. Finally, some essentialists are concerned that the notion that race is constructed lends itself to public policies that they believe are wrongheaded. For example, physical anthropologist Vincent Sarich (co-author of Race: The Reality of Human Differences), has written: “We believe the case for the reality of race and of human differences must be presented…against the political temper of our times in which the view that race is a social construction…has come to be invoked as the justification for public policies based on racial privileges.”

The debate about whether distinct biological races exist is often at risk of being interpreted as a dispute over innate equality or inequality. Despite the efforts of essentialists who stress that the existence of races does not necessarily imply a hierarchy of races, and of constructionists who insist that their rejection of the biological race concept does not mean they believe all human beings are the same, the concepts of “difference” and “inequality” are often confused for each other when the topic is race. The belief—or fear—that innate difference necessarily reflects innate inequality can be detected among both essentialists and constructionists. Consider, for example, commentator Andrew Sullivan’s analysis of Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ recent comments on women’s intrinsic capacity for scientific achievement: "Summers is putting his finger on one of liberalism's great contemporary problems: how to reconcile the moral equality of human beings and the political equality of citizens with increasingly accurate scientific discoveries of aspects of human life that reflect our innate, biological inequality." Although many scientists would no doubt reject the interpretation of scientific study of sex differences as a matter of inferiority or superiority, the concept of inequality casts a long shadow on the debate about difference.


In one of his most widely-read works, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used the word “Distinction” to title his book, taking advantage of its double meanings. On one hand, it refers to a process—the act of identifying differences between people, for example. But as a noun, it also bears the connotation of a property like “classiness”— an apparently effortless or “natural” quality of superiority. Bourdieu plays with the double-entendre to show us how hierarchical differences that seem—well, “natural”—are in fact cemented in place through a lot of hard work at drawing up social boundaries.

After conducting my interviews on race with anthropologists and biologists, I came away feeling that it wasn’t really so hard to reconcile essentialist and constructionist views on race after all. We could find common ground if both camps made some important admissions. Constructionists could acknowledge that we make judgment calls about where to draw dividing lines all the time, and that we often refer to groups whose boundaries are imperfectly defined —like “constructionists” and “essentialists”—in an effort to describe social or physical phenomena. And when conducting statistical analyses, for example, we accept arbitrary cutoffs as thresholds for declaring which results are “significant” and which are not. But essentialists must admit that the dividing lines we draw are not simply “out there” awaiting human discovery, but rather that they reflect a process of human deliberation about the how, when and why of measuring distinctions, a process that is socially embedded and should be open to questioning. In short, while human biological variation certainly seems to be real, the ways that we cut it up, name and describe it are the product of our scientific imagination.