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Definition of Race in Sociology

Sociologists define race as a concept that is used to signify different types of human bodies. While there is no biological basis for racial classification, sociologists recognize a long history of attempts to organize groups of people based on similar skin color and physical appearance. The absence of any biological foundation makes race often difficult to define and classify, and as such, sociologists view racial categories and the significance of race in society as unstable, always shifting, and intimately connected to other social forces and structures.

Sociologists emphasize, though, that while race is not a concrete, fixed thing that is essential to human bodies, it is much more than simply an illusion. While it is socially constructed through human interaction and relationships between people and institutions, as a social force, race is very real in its consequences.

Race Must Be Understood in Social, Historical, and Political Context

Sociologists and racial theorists Howard Winant and Michael Omi provide a definition of race that situates it within social, historical, and political contexts, and that emphasizes the fundamental connection between racial categories and social conflict. In their book Racial Formation in the United States, they explain that race is “ unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle,” and, that “...race is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.”

Omi and Winant link race, and what it means, directly to political struggles between different groups of people, and to social conflicts which stem from competing group interests.

To say that race is defined in large part by political struggle is to recognize how definitions of race and racial categories have shifted over time, as the political terrain has shifted. For example, within the context of the U.S., during the founding of the nation and the era of enslavement, definitions of black