The Concept of Race in Contemporary Scholarship


Race is a social construct that has been used as a basis for discrimination and oppression throughout history. It is also a concept that continues to be reflected in the everyday lives of most people, whether they recognize it or not. It is therefore essential to understand how this social category works if we are to be able to challenge its continuing role in our society. The current article focuses on the concept of race in contemporary scholarship, including the metaphysical, ontological, epistemological and normative questions that it raises.

The term “race” was first formulated in modern natural philosophy as a response to ideas of deterministic biology that sought to explain human differences through biological inheritance (Mallon 2006, 526). A prominent early example was the 1775 essay “On the Natural Variety of Mankind,” written by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who described four distinct races: the noble blonds of Europe and Asia; the copper reds of America and east Asia; the dark blacks of Africa and west Asia; and the olive-yellows of Australia and India.

Anthropologists like Franz Boas criticized the idea of a fixed biologically based category for human races, while philosophers such as Michel Foucault focused on how this concept was constructed and used within discourses of knowledge and power. Subsequently, anthropologists shifted focus from fixed, perceptible characteristics to seemingly mutable cultural factors that could explain racial differences.

This shift was accelerated in the 1960s by the introduction of experimental genetics, which showed that there is not sufficient evidence for a biologically based racial distinction. However, the concept of race has endured, even as scientific understandings of the nature of human evolution have eroded.

The ongoing ambiguity surrounding the existence and meaning of race is evident in contemporary scholarship, with a wide spectrum of opinions. On the one hand, eliminativism contends that the concept is a social construction with no biological reality and should therefore be abandoned. The alternative is constructive racism, which argues that racial categories exist and have real consequences for the lives of those who are ascribed to them. For example, if someone is ascribed to the category of African American in the United States, they will face obstacles when trying to hail cabs or will be more likely to be stopped and searched by police.

A more moderate position is the approach of agnosticism, which recognizes the reality of racial distinctions and their impact on social life while also rejecting the underlying assumptions of the biological conception of race. This view is rooted in a desire to avoid the damaging effects of racial hierarchy and its perpetuation by those seeking to preserve it, while acknowledging that this is not possible without an objective basis for assessing the reality of human differences. A number of different biological ontologies have been proposed as ways of creating this objective grounding for a racial taxonomy. The most promising is probably the genomic clustering approach, which provides a clearer picture of genetic variation than does cladistic race by distinguishing between individuals with shared clustered genes and those with more dissimilar ones.