Literature Review - Discrimination

Date: Apr 18, 2019
Category: Review Category


Discrimination is an issue of considerable debate. It implies differentiating and excluding individuals or groups of people based on a certain attribute (Andersen & Taylor 2007). Discrimination is also characterized by favoring or being against individuals because of class, group or some category that an individual is professed to belong to. As a result, the person or the group is treated depending on their real or perceived membership to a particular social category. In most cases, discrimination is worse than the usual treatment that people can receive such as restricted access to opportunities that people from other groups have and exclusion among others (Heinrich 2012). This paper discusses the sociological theories that explain discrimination, importance of research on discrimination, and views on the topic of significant sociological thinkers.

The sociological inquiry of discrimination comprises of two types, which include studying discrimination that requires explanation and using discrimination in explaining other social phenomena (Heinrich 2012). Various disciplines such as law, economics, psychology, political science, and anthropology regard discrimination as a social phenomenon that requires explanation; as a result, they have focused on shedding light on the factors that contribute to discrimination. What differentiates the sociological approach in studying discrimination is the analysis of the concept at a macro-level and explaining its occurrence using social processes rather than individual-level factors (Niemonen 2002; Niemonen 2002).

Sociological Theories that Explain Discrimination

There are numerous sociological theories that expound the occurrence of discrimination. Discrimination can be explained using three main sociological perspectives including the functionalist, symbolic interaction, and conflict theories (Andersen & Taylor 2007). Each of these theories provides a different explanation of the occurrence of discrimination.

According to the functionalist theory, society comprises of a complex system whose parts work together with the main aim of promoting stability and solidarity. This theory studies society using a macro-level orientation and places emphasis on the social structures having an effect on society in its entirety (Vera & Feagin 2009). Functionalists are of the view that discrimination exists because every individual has roles and responsibilities that are best suited for them. For the society to be functional, these roles have to be performed; thus, discrimination occurs when one group is of the view that another group has established roles that they do not want to be changed. For instance, the view that women are not suited to work in top management positions because they will neglect their roles as wives and mothers is likely to be perceived as a form of discrimination against females. In this regard, functionalism perceives discrimination as a an efficient way of creating a social system whereby a particular population segment has the responsibility of performing certain tasks whereas another segment is obligated to perform other tasks (division of labor) (Vera & Feagin 2009). Moreover, functionalists attribute discrimination to the need to shift social costs from individuals having the most power to those having the least power.

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According to the conflict perspective, society comprises of different interests and groups that compete for the scanty resources and power. Conflict theorists maintain that discrimination is both an essential and an inherent aspect of society (Schaefer & Grekul 2009). They link discrimination to the class-based conflict and maintain that to eliminate discrimination , class conflict should be eliminated first (Heinrich 2012). According to this theory, the changes taking place in the economic structure have resulted in society being divided into two classes of people comprising of the haves and have-nots. This division plays an important role in influencing life chances of the various groups resulting in discrimination. The have-nots are denied the opportunity to access the resources that the haves can access. The haves use this as a means of maintaining control over the societal institutions to their advantage. Overall, for conflict theorists, discrimination is everywhere because of the class struggle (class-conflict) as the upper class strives to create a system that hinders the lower class from transitioning into upper class (Kendall 2012).

Symbolic interaction theory focuses on examining the social construction of reality. Symbolic interaction perspective posits that social interaction influences an individual’s identity. In this respect, people develop their self-concept based on the manner in which they observe their interaction with others and how others label them (Kendall 2012). In this way, discrimination occurs when a person does not have the labels that others like, which may result in prejudgments. Discrimination can also be explained using stereotypes, which is an outcome of labeling characterized by unreliable generalizations regarding the members of a certain group that fail to consider individual differences (Kendall 2012).

Importance of Research on Discrimination

In contemporary literature regarding discrimination, the issue of the relevance of discrimination is prevalent. Because discrimination was pervasive and unconcealed five decades ago, it is currently difficult to evaluate the level to which daily opportunities and experiences are shaped by the various forms of discrimination (Andersen & Taylor 2007). There is no doubt that discrimination has lessened substantially the increasing significance of skills coupled with the structural changes occurring in the economy. However, traces of discrimination are still evident in the merit factors. Statistics documents various forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and religious affiliation among others. In this respect, there is the need to understand why societies have been unable to eliminate discrimination (Schaefer & Grekul 2009). Presently, discrimination is just one of the factors that determine opportunities; however, it is essential to study how and when discrimination is instrumental with respect to the allocation of opportunities and resources. In addition, the controversial nature of discrimination itself warrants further research. For instance, measures that have been used to lessen discrimination have been criticized of promoting reverse discrimination. This raises important questions with respect to the level of balance needed to ensure that discrimination is not eliminated at the cost of another group (Schaefer & Grekul 2009).

Significant Sociological Thinkers

The two main sociological thinkers on discrimination are Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. Karl Marx explored discrimination using a capitalist perspective and argued that it is an outcome of capitalist oppression. Marx was of the view that all forms of discrimination stem from the schemes used by the capitalist ruling class aimed at dividing the working class and ensuring that they do not revolt (Heinrich 2012). An important theme in Karl Marx’s views regarding discrimination relates to the two classes found in an economic system. The first is the capitalist class, which owns and controls the capital and production means. The ruling class incessantly tries to boost their profits. The working class comprises of the majority who work for the capitalist class for wages. Profits are derived from laying low wages relative to how employees contribute to production, which is referred to as exploitation (Heinrich 2012). The class conflict existing between workers and capitalists is an inherent feature of a capitalist system, which in turn makes discrimination integral. Workers strive to increase their wages and enhance their work conditions whereas capitalists embark on limiting wages and increasing the amount of work. This exploitation can be eliminated when the capitalism is overthrown by the working class. Capitalists rely on discrimination as a means of creating disunity among the working class in order to weaken their capacity to revolt against capitalism. For instance, if male workers identify themselves as men rather than workers, they are unlikely to act in accordance to the interests of female workers (Heinrich 2012).

Emile Durkheim is another significant sociological thinker that made important contributions to studying discrimination. For Durkheim, discrimination stems from the need to categorize individuals into higher and lower positions in terms of rewards, responsibility, and authority. Durkheim argued that discrimination that is based on merit contributes to the efficient functioning of society (Kendall 2012). This is not the case when discrimination is based on external inequalities. Durkheim explored discrimination from a moral perspective, whereby he advocated for a change in the societal moral standards characterized by criticizing all forms of injustices and being rendered unjust. Durkheim was of the view that the state plays an insignificant role in addressing discrimination; instead, the focus should be on changing the moral basis of societies (Kendall 2012).

Secondary Sociological Thinkers

A number of contemporary sociologists have attempted to advance theories aimed at explaining discrimination. John Turner and Henri Tajfel are among the thinkers who advanced the social identity theory in explaining discrimination using intergroup behavior. The social identify theory tries to envisage particular intergroup behaviors based on the perceived status differences between groups, the supposed stability and legitimacy associated with these status differences, and the supposed ability to traverse among groups (Kendall 2012). According to the social identity theory, people have an innate propensity to identify themselves with social groups as part of fostering their identity as well as reinforcing boundaries with other groups which, in turn, contributes to discrimination (Vera & Feagin 2009).

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Another thinker is Donald Campbell, who developed the realistic group conflict theory (RGCT), which integrated aspects of sociology and psychology to explain intergroup conflict and discrimination (Andersen & Taylor 2007). According to RGCT, conflict in goals and competing for scanty resources can lead to intergroup conflict, which results in the out-group feelings associated with prejudice and discrimination (Andersen & Taylor 2007).

Areas that Need More Research

Discrimination is still a problem in the contemporary society that still has a negative impact on the manner in which opportunities and resources are allocated (Andersen & Taylor 2007). Sociology has focused more on explaining the occurrence of discrimination rather than on exploring the effects associated with discrimination at the macro-level, which is an area that needs further research. In addition, discrimination in itself is linked to conflicting interests; thus, eliminating discrimination can possibly occur at the cost of another group, which is likely to cite reverse discrimination (Niemonen 2002). Therefore, an area that needs further research relates to the ways of striking a balance between conflicting interests while attempting to address the issue of discrimination.


Discrimination can be explained using the three main sociological perspectives including the functionalist, symbolic interaction, and conflict theories. The two main sociological thinkers on discrimination are Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, who tackled discrimination from different perspectives with Marx maintaining a capitalist perspective whereas Durkheim focused on a moral perspective. Secondary sociological thinkers on the topic discussed in this review include thinkers John Turner, Henri Tajfel, and Donald Campbell.

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