Segregation Essay

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Segregation is the separation of groups based on social characteristics. These characteristics may be either ascribed, such as race, or achieved, such as economic status. In a segregated society, the separated groups may have little or no contact with each other. It is this lack of contact between groups that contributes to the social problems associated with segregation. This occurs primarily through two dimensions: lack of exposure and unequal access to resources.

The separation of groups limits contact between groups, potentially leading to the development of prejudices and the continuation of stereotypes. Segregation separates members of groups and in doing so may perpetuate stereotypes by denying them opportunities to interact. Social networks that exclude specific groups may be perceived as biased or discriminatory because networks integrate individuals into the greater social context and segregated networks limit the exposure of individuals to the “other.”

When groups are segregated spatially, separate institutions also emerge, and this can lead to unequal access to society’s resources. Following the U.S. Civil War, many southern states enacted Jim Crow laws enforcing previously informal norms of segregation of blacks and whites. These laws justified racial segregation using the argument that public facilities such as railroads and schools could be “separate but equal.” The Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 upheld this doctrine. It would not be until 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) that public school segregation would be declared unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 signaled the end of the Jim Crow laws.

In the U.S. context, the civil rights movement of the 1960s explicitly addressed segregation based on ascribed characteristics of race and gender. Yet, even when legal support for equal opportunity exists, segregation in the form of social exclusion may occur. With social exclusion, individuals may experience not physical segregation but social marginalization that limits employment and earnings opportunities.

Dimensions of Segregation

Segregation has social, cultural, and spatial contexts and occurs as the result of law (de jure segregation) or by cultural practice (de facto segregation). Many dimensions of segregation, including age, gender, disability status, race, ethnicity, and economic status, can be identified in societies worldwide. In the United States and Europe, segregation in housing and segregation in education are two of the most commonly studied forms of segregation.

Researchers are increasingly focusing on segregation as a multilevel phenomenon. This reflects the reality that individuals are embedded in social contexts that shape their access to other individuals and resources in society. While individual and group-level characteristics are often the focal point of segregation, segregation occurs through social institutions such as schools, occupations, and residential communities. For example, the housing opportunities available to minorities are framed in the context of housing segregation, which is often examined from a neighborhood and community context; glass ceiling effects for women are framed in the context of gender segregation in the workplace and occupational context.

There are both voluntary and involuntary causes of segregation. Voluntary segregation often occurs at the individual or group level in terms of social networks. Involuntary segregation occurs when individuals and groups are denied opportunities because of one or more characteristics. At its most basic, voluntary and involuntary segregation can be cast in terms of individual preferences versus discrimination. For example, in the United States, minority residents may prefer to live in mixed neighborhoods, but whites may be unwilling to sell their homes to minority families.

Multiple dimensions of segregation may also interact. For example, residential segregation by race can be compounded by economic segregation. A longstanding debate continues about the relative importance of race and socioeconomic status. Increases in levels of segregation are often attributed to factors rooted in group tensions and institutionalized discrimination. Decreases in segregation reflect changes in social policies as well as social norms such as increasing tolerance and more egalitarian gender norms.

Measuring Segregation

An increasing number of indices measure segregation. Although the Index of Dissimilarity is the traditional measure of segregation, researchers now recognize that no single summary measure fully characterizes all dimensions of segregation. At the same time, different indices may produce different results, and researchers are increasingly turning to multiple measures in framing their studies. The preferred method depends on both the type of segregation being measured and the focus of the particular study. To analyze spatial patterns of segregation, researchers increasingly combine segregation indices with the use of mapping techniques.

In examining residential segregation, Massey and Denton distinguish among five distinct dimensions of segregation: evenness, exposure, concentration, centralization, and clustering. The Index of Dissimilarity is a measure of evenness. It measures the extent to which different groups inhabit categories or areas of interest and ranges between 0 and 1 with values above 0.60 reflecting high levels of segregation. In the context of residential segregation, the Index of Dissimilarity can explain the proportion of one group that would have to move between areas to create an even racial distribution.

The Isolation Index and Correlation Ratio are examples of measures of exposure. The Isolation Index measures the extent to which a group has contact with another group in an area. Like the index of dissimilarity, the index of isolation ranges from 0 to 1, with higher values (0.30-1.00) indicating greater levels of isolation. The correlation ratio measures the degree to which an area is composed of homogeneous units. Values range from 0 to 1, with values close to 1 reflecting larger differences between areas. A variation on the correlation index applied to income segregation is the Neighborhood Sorting Index. Measures of concentration, centralization, and clustering are distinct but related concepts that represent the physical space occupied by a group, the centrality of that space, and the adjacency of a group’s space to other groups, respectively.

Segregation as a Social Problem

Segregation, per se, may not necessarily be bad for a group. Many of the negative consequences of segregation stem from the embeddedness of forms of involuntary segregation in the social fabric. In the United States, institutions that have a history of segregation include education and housing. Many public school districts are based on neighborhoods that are racially and economically segregated. Inner-city neighborhoods may be populated by concentrations of poor minorities with little social capital or opportunity to move. In such involuntarily segregated communities, segregation can lead to negative outcomes such as lower levels of education, more unemployment, and single parenthood.

Yet, voluntary segregation may serve a supportive function for a group. Ethnic enclaves have internal economies that assist in adjustment for immigrant groups. They may offer support, social capital, and opportunities for upward mobility. In education, proponents of single-sex public education argue that single-sex schools may increase learning because they lessen the pressure to meet gender stereotypes.

Segregation can serve as a barrier for members of segregated groups that leads to social exclusion and a lack of opportunity for social mobility. Members of advantaged groups may protect their advantages by discriminating against nongroup members and excluding them. Policies such as affirmative action sought to explicitly address historic inequalities by gender and race. Some argue that affirmative action is no longer necessary and can be replaced with policies that promote “equal opportunity” in hiring and school admissions. Others assert that while minorities and women have made gains, they are still over-represented in service and lower-prestige occupations and under-represented in many high-prestige positions and occupations.

Understanding the basis of segregation can help better understand its consequences. Voluntary segregation may offer group members support they would not easily find in the larger society. Involuntary segregation can be based on either legal justification or socially condoned discriminatory behavior. In either case, differential status is assigned to groups based on their race, gender, age, or economic status. Since an individual’s social networks are relatively homogeneous, individuals embedded in a segregated society have limited exposure to individuals unlike themselves. They live with people like themselves, attend schools with people like themselves, work with people like themselves, and are shielded from either the disparities that exist or the means to overcome them.


  1. Allen, Walter R. and Reynolds Farley. 1986. “The Shifting Social and Economic Tides of Black America, 1950-1980.” Annual Review of Sociology 12:277-306.
  2. Duncan, Otis D. and Beverly Duncan. 1955. “A Methodological Analysis of Segregation Indices.” American Sociological Review 20:200-217.
  3. Jargowsky, Paul A. 1997. Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City. New York: Russell Sage.
  4. Massey, Douglas A. and Nancy A. Denton. 1988. “The Dimensions of Residential Segregation.” Social Forces 67(2):281-315.
  5. Massey, Douglas A. and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Reardon, Sean F. and David O’Sullivan. 2004. “Measures of Spatial Segregation.” Sociological Methodology 34:121-62.

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