race – sociology’s groundhog day: comment on an article by tanya golash-boza

Tanya Golash-Boza has a new article called “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism,” in The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. In it, she makes two arguments. First, sociologists say over and over and over that there is no theory of race. Then, she outlines the theory of race as it actually exists in the literature. I’ll get to this next week, but for now, let’s start with the groundhog day approach to the sociology of race.

Tanya starts off with the groundhog day issue – people keep insisting there is no theory of race and they say it endlessly. I quote here from Tanya’s article

  • Bonilla-Silva (1997): “the area of race and ethnic studies lacks a sound theoretical apparatus.”
  • Winant (200): “The inadequacy of the range of theoretical approaches to race available in sociology at the turn of the twenty-first century is striking.”
  • Faegin (2001): “in the case of racist oppression, … we do not as yet have as strongly agreed-upon concepts and well-developed theoretical traditions as we have for class and gender oppression.”
  • Emirbayer and Desmond (2015): “there has never been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race.”
  • Omi and Winant (2015): “Despite the enormous legacy and volume of racial theory, the concept of race remains poorly understood and inadequately explained.”

So why do people keep saying this? Why does each generation claim that there is no theory, then offer a theory that the next generation refuses to recognize?

Two hypotheses. First, there may be a systematic undervaluing race research by minority scholars. In The Scholar Denied, Morris makes this claim about DuBois. Second, perhaps the sociology of race, more than other areas, attracts scholars with want to rush into an area and not engage with it.

This sentiment is puzzling given that it is surprisingly easy to find theoretical treatments of race. The search term”sociology theories of race” yields in the top 10 results the following texts: Race Relations in Sociological Theory by John Rex, Sociological Theory and Race Relations by E. Franklin Frazier, and Theories of Race and Racism edited by Back and Solomos. Those who teach or specialize in the sociology of race could easily produce a list of texts that survey theories of race or offer their own.

Next week, we’ll dive into this issue, and others, as we review Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 22, 2016 at 12:09 am

8 Responses

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  1. Isn’t it true that we lack good theories for many social phenomena, and that reminding us of their inadequacy is a routine way social scientists and theorists motivate their latest “contribution”?

    That is, is that list of quotes common to many areas besides race?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dean: I’d argue the opposite is true of race. We have a lot of theories and we’ve actually made some good progress with some of them. It may be fair to say “I think theory of X of race is flawed” but completely out to lunch to say that we have no theory of race.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 22, 2016 at 2:31 am

  3. your top ten proves their point. The most cited of the three you point to has <600 citations (and its from the 70s). Frazier's doesn't even reach 100. Maybe those theories are good, maybe they're bad. But they're not part of the canon of sociological work on race. Those aren't theories that I'd say we "made some good progress with…" considering how little they've been cited. Especially compared to, say, any of the authors referenced above.



    April 22, 2016 at 11:34 am

  4. That’s the point, Rory. The texts are out there and they are not obscure (Frazier’s appeared in the ASR). And that is only the result of a brief Google search. A more systematic analysis, which will be discussed next week, yields lots of hits. E.g., Souls of Black Folk scores 10k citations. Bonilla-Silva’s work scores 3.5K citations. Omi and Winant score 7k citations. Why insist there is no theory of race in 2015?

    Liked by 2 people


    April 22, 2016 at 6:28 pm

  5. The classic article by Gans (sociological amnesia, the noncumulation of normal social science) deals with the same issue for sociology at large. He calls it “sociological amnesia” and shows how debates cyclically repeat every twenty years.

    Liked by 1 person

    Claudio Benzecry

    April 25, 2016 at 3:28 pm

  6. I hadn’t read that. Thanks for the link.



    April 25, 2016 at 5:44 pm

  7. […] The next part of the book forum will focus on the first claim about what has, or has not been achieved, in the sociology of race. So it’s going to be critical because E&D were really uncharitable. Then, I’ll finish on a high note and discuss what I think PDIB has to contribute. In between, I’ll discuss the structures of racism literature as the second part of a commentary on the article by Tanya Golash-Boza that was recently published in the The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. […]


  8. […] week, we discussed an article by Tanya Golash-Boza that discusses the state of race theory. Her points are simple -despite claims to the contrary, sociology has developed a theory of race. […]


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