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before you say race isn’t real, you need a definition of race

This week, I’d like to focus on the sociology of race. We’ll discuss Shiao et al.’s Sociological Theory article The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race, which is the subject of a symposium. After you read the article and symposium, you might enjoy the Scatterplot discussion.

In this first post, I’d like to discuss the definitional problems associated with the concept “race.” The underlying concept is that people differ in some systematic way that goes beyond learned traits (like language). One aspect of the “person in the street” view of race is that it reflects common ancestry, which produces correlated physical and social traits. When thinking about this approach to race, most sociologists adopt the constructivist view which says that: (a) the way we group people together reflects our historical moment, not a genuine grouping of people with shared traits and  (b) the only physical differences between people are superficial.

One thing to note about the constructivist approach to race is that the first claim is very easy to defend and the other is very challenging. The classifications used by the “person on the street” are essentially fleeting social conventions. For example, Americans used the “one drop rule” to classify people, but it makes little sense because putting more weight on Black ancestors than White ancestors is arbitrary. Furthermore, ethnic classifications vary by place and even year to year. The ethnic classifications used in social practice flunk the basic tests of reliability and validity that one would want from any measurement of the social world.

The second claim is that there are no meaningful differences between people in general. This claim is much harder to make. This is not an assessment of truth of the claim, but the evidence needed to make is of a tall order. Namely, to make the strong constructivist argument, you would need (a) a definition of which traits matter, (b) a systematic measurement of those traits from a very large sample of people, (c) criteria for clustering people based on data, and (d) a clear test that all (or even most) reasonable clustering methods show a single group of people. As you can see, you need *a lot* of evidence to make that work.

That is where Shiao et al get into the game. They never dispute the first claim, but suggest that the second claim is indefensible – there is evidence of non-random clustering of people using genomic data. This is very important because it disentangles two important issues – race as social category and race as intra-group similarity. It’s like saying the Average Joe may be mistaken about air, earth, water, and fire, but real scientists can see that there are elements out there and you can do real science with them.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 14, 2014 at 12:04 am

37 Responses

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  1. One quick clarification: the issue is not simply *physical* differences, but *inherent* physical differences. Physical differences can be the product of social differences – class and race are ‘marked on the body’ and perhaps even the brain. That’s why it’s so important that Shiao et al are claiming to find genetic (and thus likely inherent) differences that correspond in some way to racial groupings. A simple finding of physical difference (even beyond superficial differences) would not suffice to show that racial groups of any sort are natural kinds (inherent, fixed, etc.) This is part of what Morning means, I think, when she argues that constructivists do not ignore biology. Steve Epstein’s work (specifically, Inclusion) is relevant here. There may be observable differences in response to medications by socially-defined race without race itself being a natural kind. If people who are classified in different racial groups have different diets, are exposed to different environmental toxins, etc., they may have different biological – but acquired – characteristics.

    Physical differences aren’t enough to challenge the constructivist story alone, they have to somehow be essential, natural kind sorts of differences – the kind Shiao et al claim that modern genetics has found.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dan Hirschman

    October 14, 2014 at 12:23 am

  2. In addition to identifying differences and classifying them by race, the looming issue is the role of natural selection – versus random variation and drift – in creating those differences. This is what Nicholas Wade was pushing in his new book, which I said a lot about here: http://www.bostonreview.net/books-ideas/philip-cohen-nicholas-wade-troublesome-inheritance

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    Philip N. Cohen

    October 14, 2014 at 1:58 am

  3. But why call genomic clustering “race”? Genomic clustering is not a) what most “people on the streets” are talking about; b) the idea that most sociologists of race are critiquing; or c) what most scientists who study the human genome would call in-group clustering of genetic differences.

    To put it another way, this would be like modern physics referring to space-time as “the ether”.

    Like

    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 2:30 am

  4. Thanks for the comments. @dan: Yes, inherent differences are the point. @phil: drift is the key mechanism here, but it not immediate for this discussion and @bbel – we’ll get to some of that in the follow up.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 3:57 am

  5. In the science section of the NYT today with a juicy (and for many quite provocative) concluding thought–but, maybe sociologists know better? I guess it depends on what you mean by “similar…”

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    Hector

    October 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

  6. What I like most about the Shiao et al. article is that they suggest using a distinct term (clinal classes) for genetic clustering. We shouldn’t be using the same term to talk about actual genetic clustering and categories of perceived difference. Although they may be related, they are distinct concepts with separate causal implications. With something like health, it is possible that genetic clustering could predispose a person to certain diseases. It is also possible that social categories could shape a person’s life in ways that predispose him/her to a range of diseases. Those are separate research questions, and should be approached with different definitions and, importantly, different types of data.

    And that’s why I think constructivists (and sociologists, more generally) have a claim to the definition of race. Almost all the data we collect that falls under the label of “race” is a measure of those socially-constructed categories, not actual genetic clustering. When someone self-reports their race on a survey, or when a Census worker classifies a person based on appearance, they are not measuring clinal classes. Even Shiao et al’s claim that genetic clustering can be “scaled up” to resemble continent-based racial categories requires glossing over a lot of lower-level genetic clustering, and is its own type of constructed category.

    Why should we gloss over that more location-specific clustering in the first place? Why continue to use socially-constructed categories as a proxy for genetic difference when we know that, at a minimum, they are imprecise and unreliable measures? I think we need to more fully separate both the concepts and the methodological approaches before we bring the two areas back together and start talking about interactions.

    Liked by 1 person

    Elyas

    October 14, 2014 at 3:04 pm

  7. Using “clinal classes” as a term is helpful. However, if you treat clinal classes and races as separate factors, people will assume that they’re orthogonal to one another. This is why it’s also important to note, as Shiao points out, that there are high correlations between self-ascribed race and DNA cluster. This is from Shiano’s response: “They find that of those who self-identify as white, between 98.1 percent and 99.5 percent were assigned to the “European” cluster, depending on the procedure and data set. Similarly, of those who self-identify as black, between 89.7 percent and 100 percent were assigned to the “African” cluster.”

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    Chris M

    October 14, 2014 at 3:22 pm

  8. Chris M,
    But isn’t that high correlation due to the fact that the researchers used commonly understood social demarcations of race (European, African, etc.) as their cluster “cut-off” points? In other words, the social categories are already baked into the conceptualization and measurement of the clinal classes here. This is the other part of Elyas’s critique that you’re glossing over.

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    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 3:36 pm

  9. Yes, in the article Shiao cites, the authors admit that their methods were “specifically designed for detecting continental populations” and are “much less effective in detecting substructures within a continental population of Europeans, Africans, or East Asians.” It seems almost inappropriate to even refer to these as clusters. A cluster implies an almost natural grouping. But there is a lot of variation and location-specific grouping that occurs within Africa, so a study that ignores this and draws a boundary around the entire continent as a basis for comparing people isn’t really looking at a cluster. It’s looking at a constructed category.

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    Elyas

    October 14, 2014 at 5:39 pm

  10. And, to make things even more problematic for Shiao et al., there is also Fujimura and company’s compelling critique that the concept of “clinal class” is itself an oxymoron since, in reality, clines deal in gradations and not identifiable classes. A clinal cluster or class, then, is a methodological artifact, not an already existing genomic reality.

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    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 6:18 pm

  11. Fabio, I also find your entire critique of social constructivists’ critiques of the concept of race rather bizarre. Social constructivists do not need proof that something does not exist and, quite frankly, proving anything does NOT exist is fundamentally impossible (can you prove God doesn’t exist, or Santa Claus, for that matter?).

    The evidentiary standards you lay out here – (a) a definition of which traits matter, (b) a systematic measurement of those traits from a very large sample of people, (c) criteria for clustering people based on data, and (d) a clear test that all (or even most) reasonable clustering methods show a single group of people – need to be met by those arguing for the biological reality of race. The burden of proof is on them. Barring this proof, we accept the null hypothesis (the idea of race has no biological foundation). The social constructivists are just being good scientists here, finding the evidence presented by genomic researchers of race sorely wanting.

    Liked by 1 person

    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 6:30 pm

  12. This is quite wrong, Beelz. All the time, we show in social research that things do not exist and argue for it. For example, in political science, there is a healthy argument about whether truly independent voters exist. They do what I have done. They define what it would mean to be an independent voter and then collect data to see whether some group of people does or does not act in that way. The answer is, by the way, no. Truly non-partisan voters (who truly equally split or waver) are a very small fraction of the population.

    Race is no different. There is nothing bizarre about saying: “People think something called ‘race’ exists. So let’s write down some definitions and see if anyone actually fits.” Your claim is sensible – that available evidence does not support what a reasonable research might call race. Later this week, I’ll offer my own view of the evidence from genomic race research.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 6:39 pm

  13. PS. “The evidentiary standards you lay out here … need to be met by those arguing for the biological reality of race.” That is exactly what Shiao et al are doing. You are free to disagree about the quality of evidence, but the argument is being presented in a very non-controversial and standardized way.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 6:48 pm

  14. Okay, I see what you’re saying. But isn’t this what social constructivists of race have been doing for quite some time? They take popular definitions of race and then show that these definitions don’t actually fit in multiple historical and social contexts. This is pretty much the bread and butter of social constructivist research.

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    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 6:54 pm

  15. Yes, I agree that this is what Shiao et al are trying to do, but trying to meet evidentiary standards is not the same thing as actually meeting them. I think the social constructivist critics like Ann Morning and Fujimara et al. do a very fine job of pointing out why this is the case.

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    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

  16. Yes, that’s right. But to see what I’m getting at, think of how an uneducated person might classify animals. For example, a lot of people used to think that fish and dolphins were of the same type. They also used to think that there was no relationship between humans and other primates. In other words, people had extremely bad, inconsistent, and unstable ways of classifying animals. But that doesn’t logically entail that there is no possible logical way to classify animals.

    Research on race is similar. The traditional view in sociology (which is correct in my view) is that folk taxonomies of people are historically contingent conventions. But it is entirely a different thing to argue that there is no logical scheme for describing human diversity. That needs an entirely separate argument and it’s own that needs its own evidence.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 7:01 pm

  17. Fabio – I think you are being imprecise here when you say “But it is entirely a different thing to argue that there is no logical scheme for describing human diversity.” The historically contingent definitions identified and traced by social constructionists are logical, but the particular logic they follow is one of racial domination. The “one-drop rule” is logical from a standpoint of maintaining a racial hierarchy even if it’s not useful for mapping ancestry or genetic variation. Put differently, “logical” is a normatively loaded word, and I think you want it to mean “connected with natural kinds” but that’s not how most people use it (nor even most sociologists, cf. “institutional logic”). There are lots of logical ways of describing human diversity. The question is, who gets to define which logic we use?

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    Dan Hirschman

    October 14, 2014 at 7:05 pm

  18. Yes, agreed, there are many logical schemes to describe human diversity (genomic, cultural, historical, etc.). The social constructivist critique is that the concept of “race”, at best, doesn’t add anything of value to this endeavor and, at worst, illogically (or at least uncritically) sneaks into the measurement process in a way that actually undermines it.

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    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 7:11 pm

  19. @Dan – I disagree. We have standards for logic that folk reasoning does not employ. For example, when we do measurement, we want reliability, but folk schemes routinely fail by that measure. We shouldn’t lump all types of reasoning together with what we expect good sociology to look like. On your broader point though, it is possible to say a definition of X should have properties A, B and C and then to argue that the data support/do not support X. It even happens on logical grounds (e.g., Arrow’s theorem). Studies of race are not an exception.

    @beelz- I’ll definitely agree with you on one point. A lot of race definitions are circular, which increases my skepticism. But to say that there’s no grouping of people that emerges, say, from genetic drift requires (or some other process) requires more evidence that what constructivists tend to offer.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 7:48 pm

  20. Fabio – I think that analogy is missing something. Misclassification of fish and dolphins can be chalked up to ignorance. It wasn’t tied, as Dan pointed out, to the political/economic/social domination of one group over another. Nor did it have the same tangible consequences for the groups themselves.

    I think you’re right that at one point our taxonomies (both folk and scientific) assumed that human biological variation and popular racial categories were one and the same. But it seems that the actual insight from genetics research is that 1) genetic clustering is much less discrete than previously thought, and 2) racial categories, at any point in history, have been a very inaccurate way of describing actual genetic variation. Again, that’s why I think the two should be completely decoupled. Race seems to be a pretty effective concept for studying social groupings. Not so much for biological/genetic groupings.

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    Elyas

    October 14, 2014 at 8:04 pm

  21. The social origins of classification are important on their own terms, but they don’t affect the underlying logical argument: just because people get X wrong does not imply that X does not exist. Proving X does not exist is simply a different argument that requires different evidence.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 8:08 pm

  22. Or, you can’t prove that X and Y belong together because racism made people separated X and Y.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 8:09 pm

  23. What is X?

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    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 9:03 pm

  24. Race week on orgtheory? [Grabs popcorn] this is going to be good!

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    Raffi

    October 14, 2014 at 9:05 pm

  25. Raffi, we’re here to help!

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 9:05 pm

  26. And, if X is race, we need some kind of conceptualization of X to make sure we know what race we are trying to prove or disprove the existence of. Race as a category of social classification? Everyone agrees that exists. Race as an inherent biological reality? Much less agreement there.

    Like

    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 9:07 pm

  27. Why not start with a much easier task – present possible candidates for “definition of race” and then examine the merits of each one. That’s how we think about any other issue.

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    fabiorojas

    October 14, 2014 at 9:08 pm

  28. But that’s exactly what the social constructivists have been doing for decades, Fabio. They’ve obviously been doing this with dominant societal conceptualizations of race for a long time, but they are also presenting compelling critical analyses of genomic scientists reconceptualizations of race – e.g., Fujimara et al.’s take on the concept of “clinal classes”. Which other definitions of race, specifically, need examined, in your estimation?

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    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 9:19 pm

  29. Ok, I’ll take a stab. Possible definitions of race:

    1. Discrete biological groups based roughly on continental ancestry (traditional/continental definition): Mixed evidence. Although there are ways to genetically identify ancestry tied to continental origins, this classification glosses over a lot of within-continent variation (e.g., something like 14 ancestral clusters within Africa). If anything, there are many more clusters.

    2. Discrete clusters of gene frequencies (genetic definition). Mixed evidence. It depends on the threshold of within-group versus between-group variation. There seems to be a lot of debate even within the field of genetics. Clusters can be identified, but variation is relatively continuous and not as discrete as traditionally thought. Definitely not the level of between-group variation as is used to classify races or subspecies of animals. Moreover, these don’t neatly match traditional racial classification systems.

    3. Constructed social groupings based on perceptions of ancestry/difference (constructivist definition). Strong evidence. There are many examples of racial classification based on constructed criteria of difference (e.g., one-drop rule, early European migration, etc.). The discreteness of boundaries is debatable and fluctuates across time and place, but the boundary-making processes have been well-documented.

    I’m sure there are others. But, I don’t think race can be defined as any sort of biological variation. The term implies a substantial (though ambiguous) amount of difference between groups.

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    Elyas

    October 14, 2014 at 9:50 pm

  30. Thanks, Elyas, that was a really helpful breakdown.

    Like

    Beelzebubble

    October 14, 2014 at 10:27 pm

  31. As Elyas so neatly demonstrates, saying something is socially constructed does not say it isn’t “real,” which is the problem with the way Fabio’s cute headline poses the matter. As I say to undergrads in lecture, education, religion and money are all obviously socially constructed and not biological, but they are all very real.It’s a false muddle to pose the choices as real/biological vs. not real/constructed.

    There may well be a good biomedical case to be made that grouping people by genotypes might improve medical treatments and even that those genotypes might correlate with social classifications, but confusing the genotype with the social classification would (seems to me) inevitably lead to bad medicine.

    This is all making the charitable assumption that nobody in the debate is trying to argue that the social hierarchies they see are due to biological/genetic differences.

    Like

    olderwoman

    October 15, 2014 at 3:09 am

  32. Beelzebubble and Elyas, Sorry for the late reply. Nearly every construct in the social sciences can be subdivided further. Hence, our measures of central *tendency.*

    Some people try to use by this argument by subdivision as a counterargument against claims, but that’s not really a sound argument. It’s valid insofar as it notes that generalization to a lower level of analysis cannot be made until that lower level is analyzed, but it doesn’t mean that the claim is wrong at the level at which it was made. If, at the continental level, clinal classes and self-ascribed race are almost identical, that does indicate something biologically meaningful about self-ascribed race.

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    Chris M

    October 15, 2014 at 8:37 pm

  33. Chris M,
    I think you’re missing the thrust of the argument. The argument is that the concept of “clinal classes at the continental level” is one that just doesn’t map onto actually existing genetic reality. The classificatory distinctions are based on existing SOCIAL classifications of racial significance (Europe = white; Africa = black; Asia = Asian, etc.), not inductively arrived at through the study of genetic variation and clustering among human populations. In other words, the scientists do not study the genome and then observe that human genetic diversity “clusters” by continent (btw, it does not). Instead, they begin with these classifications, treating them from the outset (naively or cynically) as if they were actually existing biological distinctions, and then fit the genetic data to them.

    So, that the vast majority of people ascribed to the “European clinal class” would self-identify as “white” indicates nothing biologically meaningful about self-ascribed race. It does, however, indicate that social constructs of race powerfully shape how some genomic scientists of race classify, perceive, and interpret their data.

    Like

    Beelzebubble

    October 16, 2014 at 1:57 am

  34. As far as clustering goes, there is no perfect way to decide when to stop a clustering algorithm, but the fact remains that when clustering stops at 5, the five resultant clusters represent the five major continents. I know that some of the clustering has been attributed to clustered sampling, but If you really feel skeptical about the use of clustering, you can also examine the PCA results. I don’t think the term cluster accurately describes the clinal gradation that one finds across geographical space, which is why I think the term clinal classes works better, and the “bunching up” described by Shiao is the best metaphor I’ve found to describe clinal gradation.

    Essentially, I’m not saying there are biological races because there is no perfect level of analysis that allows one to come up with a discrete number of clinal classes. However, there is a specific joint set of alleles that has a high probability of being found among (and only among) any group of people who ascribe a common racial identity to themselves. This is obviously not true for each allele within the set, and it’s not true of every randomly selected set of alleles.

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    Chris M

    October 16, 2014 at 4:29 am

  35. […] Shiao et al in Sociological Theory, the symposioum, Scatterplot’s discussion, Andrew Perrin’s comments, last week’s discussion. […]

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  36. […] down and introduce a sociological perspective (even if the sociological perspective is sometimes debated). The Whiteness Project, A new series from PBS, and related videos online, provide a possible […]

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