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Discrimination refers to the differential, and often unequal, treatment of people who have been either formally or informally grouped into a particular class of persons. There are many forms of discrimination that are specified according to the ways in which particular groups are identified, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, class, age, disability, nationality, religion, or language. The United Nations Charter (1954) declared in article 55 that the UN will promote human rights and freedoms for all, ”without distinction as to race, sex, language, and religion. Later in 1958, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights added eight further grounds for possible discrimination, which were color, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.
Banton (1994) notes that the family, the ethnic group, and the state are all based on acts of discrimination. In families, different individuals have differing roles and obligations that require particular types of behavior, for example husband and wife and parent and child. Members of ethnic groups may differentiate in their association with or exclusion of other people depending on the identification of their ethnic origins. States frequently discriminate between citizens and non-citizens in conferring rights and responsibilities. Although discrimination is often an individual action, it is also a social pattern of aggregate behavior. So, structures of inequality may be reproduced over generations through repeated patterns of differential treatment. Here, individuals are denied opportunities and resources for reasons that are not related to their merits, capacities, or behavior but primarily because of their membership of an identifiable group.
Discrimination takes many forms. Marger (2000) identifies a ”spectrum of discrimination, which includes wide variations in both its forms and severity. Broadly, three categories of discrimination are identified as comprising this spectrum. Firstly, the most severe acts of discrimination involve mass societal aggression such as the annihilation of native peoples in North America, South Africa, and Australia, the Nazi Holocaust, plantation slavery, or more recent massacres of ethnic groups in Rwanda and Bosnia. Violent racism and domestic violence are two further examples of widespread discriminatory aggression. Secondly, discrimination involves denial of access to societal opportunities and rewards, for example in employment, education, housing, health, and justice. Thirdly, use of derogatory, abusive verbal language that is felt to be offensive (e.g., ”Paki, ”nigger ), which, together with racist jokes, use of Nazi insignia, and unwitting stereotyping and pejorative phrases, may all constitute lesser forms of discrimination. Dualistic notions of degradation and desire, love and hate, purity and disease, and inferiority and superiority may be involved in discursive strategies through which forms of discrimination are expressed. Explanations for discrimination require complex accounts that are able to embrace micropsychological processes, individual and group experiences, competition and socialization, together with structural power relations and aspects of globalization.
Poststructuralist and postmodernist directions in contemporary sociological theory have nurtured an increasing focus on the complexity of interactions between different forms of discrimination. The critique of the conceptual inflation of racism, which warns against labeling institutional practices as racist as they may have exclusionary effects on other groups, further supports the building of sociological complexity into the study of how discrimination works. This shift is also apparent in the development of international and national protections and remedies. Here, development of human rights approaches that emphasize particularly freedom from discrimination and respect for the dignity of individuals and their ways of life and personal development seek to build a collective agenda that encompasses the needs and interests of all individuals and groups. The shift toward the creation of general equality commissions in the UK and in Europe and the dismantling of institutions concerned with separate forms of discrimination such as race or disability further exemplifies this process. In future research, focus on the interactions between different structures of discrimination is likely to be key.
- Banton, M. (1994) Discrimination. Open University Press, Buckingham.
- Hepple, B. & Szyszczak, E. M. (eds.) (1992) Discrimination: The Limits of Law. Mansell, London.
- Law, I. (1996) Racism, Ethnicity, and Social Policy. Harvester Wheatsheaf/Prentice Hall, Hemel Hempstead.
- Marger, N. (2000) Race and Ethnic Relations. Wadsworth, Stamford, CT.