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A minority or subordinate group is a sociological group that does not constitute a politically dominant plurality of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority — it may include any group that is disadvantaged with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power. To avoid confusion, some writers prefer the terms "subordinate group" and "dominant group" rather than "minority" and "majority".
In socioeconomics, the term "minority" typically refers to a socially subordinate ethnic group (understood in terms of language, nationality, religion and/or culture). Other minority groups include people with disabilities, "economic minoritites" (working poor or unemployed), "age minorities" (who are younger or older than a typical working age) and sexual minorities (whose sexual orientation or gender identity differs from the sociological norm).
The term "minority group" often occurs alongside a discourse of civil rights and collective rights which gained prominence in the 20th century. Members of minority groups are subject to differential treatment in the society in which they live. This discrimination may be directly based on an individual's perceived membership of a minority group, without consideration of that individual's personal achievement. It may also occur indirectly, due to social structures that are not equally accessible to all.
Usually, social progressivism is the friend of the minority group and forms of social conservatism are the foe. This has been true for many groups over the course of history, including Jews (Nazi Germany), African-Americans (Jim Crow Period), and currently around the world, the homosexual community.
Sociology of minority groups
Sociologist Louis Wirth defined a minority group 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." This definition includes both objective and subjective criteria: membership of a minority group is objectively ascribed by society, based on an individual's physical or behavioral characteristics; it is also subjectively applied by its members, who may use their status as the basis of group identity or solidarity. In any case, minority group status is categorical in nature: an individual who exhibits the physical or behavioral characteristics of a given minority group will be accorded the status of that group and be subject to the same treatment as other members of that group.
Racial or ethnic minorities
Every large society contains ethnic minorities. They may be migrant, indigenous or landless nomadic communities. In some places, subordinate ethnic groups may constitute a numerical majority, such as Blacks in South Africa under apartheid. International law governs the rights of minority groups, and international criminal law contains can protect the rights of racial or ethnic minorities in a number of ways.
See Lyal S. Sunga International Criminal Law: Protection of Minority Rights, Beyond a One-Dimensional State: An Emerging Right to Autonomy? (ed. Zelim Skurbaty)(2004) 255-275.
Gender and sexual minorities
While in most societies, numbers of men and women are roughly equal, the status of women as a subordinate group has led some to equate them with minorities. In addition, various gender variant people can be seen as constituting a minority group or groups, such as intersexuals, transsexuals, and gender nonconformists — especially when such phenomena are understood as intrinsic characteristics of an identifiable group.
An understanding of lesbian, homo, bisexual and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in the Western world since the 19th century. The acronym LGBT is currently used to group these identities together. The phrase sexual minorities can also be used to refer to these groups, and in addition may include fetishists, practitioners of BDSM, polyamorists and people who prefer sex partners of a disparate age. The term queer is sometimes understood as an umbrella term for all non-normative sexualities and gender expressions, but does not always seek to be understood as a minority; rather, as with many Gay Liberationists of the 1960s and 70s, it sometimes represents an attempt to uncover and embrace the sexual diversity in everyone.
The elderly, while traditionally influential or even (in a gerontocracy) dominant in the past, have in the modern age usually been reduced to the minority role of economically 'non-active' groups. Children can also be understood as a minority group in these terms, though due to their lack of knowledge and education, they don't argue for civil rights.
The Disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of disabled people as a minority or a coalition of minorities who are disadvantaged by society, not just as people who are disadvantaged by their impairments. Advocates of disability rights emphasise difference in physical or psychological functioning, rather than inferiority — for example, some people with Autism argue for acceptance of neurodiversity, much as opponents of racism argue for acceptance of ethnic diversity, and the homosexual community argue for acceptance of sexual diversity. The Deaf community is often regarded as a linguistic and cultural minority rather than a disabled group, and many Deaf people do not see themselves as disabled at all. Rather, they are disabled by technologies and social institutions that are designed to cater for the dominant group.
Minorities in law and government
In the politics of some countries, a minority is an ethnic group that is recognized as such by respective laws of its country and therefore has some rights that other groups lack. Speakers of a legally-recognized minority language, for instance, might have the right to education or communication with the government in their mother tongue. Countries that have special provisions for minorities include China, Germany, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom (which does maintain the concept of a British supra-nation, however). In the United States, the term minority typically refers to members of the non-white population, but since the population and power of whites has been decreasing over time in the US, using the term "minority" to identify non-whites in some regions is becoming a misnomer.
Differing minority groups often are not given identical treatment. Some groups are too small or too indistinct compared to the majority, that they either identify as part of the same nation as the members of the majority, or they identify as a separate nation but are ignored by the majority because of the costs or some other aspect of providing preferences. For example, a member of a particularly small ethnic group might be forced to check "Other" on a checklist of different backgrounds, and consequently might receive fewer privileges than a member of a more defined group.
Many contemporary governments prefer to assume the people they rule all belong to the same nationality rather than separate ones based on ethnicity. The United States asks for race and ethnicity on its official census forms, which thus breaks up and organizes its population into different sub-groups, but primarily on racial origin rather than national one. Spain does not divide its nationals by ethnic group, although it does maintain an official notion of minority languages.
Some minorities are so relatively large or historically or otherwise important that the system is set up in a way to ensure complete equality. As an example, the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes the three main nations, none of which constitute a numerical majority, as constitutive nations, see nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The issue of establishing minority groups, and determining the extent of privileges they might derive from their status, is controversial. There are some who argue that minorities are owed special recognition and rights, while others feel that minorities are unjustified in demanding special rights, as this amounts to preferential discrimination and could hamper the ability of the minority to integrate itself into mainstream society - perhaps to the point at which the minority follows a path to separatism or supremacism. In Canada, some feel that the failure of the dominant English-speaking majority to assimilate French Canadians has given rise to Quebec separatism.
One particularly controversial issue is affirmative action, or positive discrimination: the idea that minorities should be granted special privileges that the majority does not enjoy. An example of this is when an individual of minority status is given preference for acceptance to a university over a more- or equally-qualified non-minority, in order to fulfill a quota of minorities in the student body. Critics of these policies often refer to them as reverse discrimination and argue that they are perpetrating new wrongs to counter old ones, and instilling a sense of victimhood in the majority. Proponents of the polices argue that the end result—a more diversified student body—justifies the means. The debate is likely to continue into the future. Quotas don't exist anymore in public universities.
- ↑ Hacker, Helen Mayer. 1951. Women as a mnority group. Social Forces, 30, 1951, pp.60-69. Article online
- Eurominority - Organization for the European Minorities (Stateless Nations and national minorities)
- ECMI - European Centre for Minority Issues
- Minority Rights Group International
- What is a Minority Group? definitions from Dayton Law School.
- From Paris to Cairo: Resistance of the Unacculturated
- When minorities rule over majorities
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