Minority group

A minority group refers to a category of people differentiated from the social majority, those who hold the majority of positions of social power in a society, and it may be defined by law. Rather than a relational "social group", as the term would indicate, "minority group" refers to the above-described. The differentiation can be based on one or more observable human characteristics, including: ethnicity, race, religion, caste, gender, wealth, health or sexual orientation. Usage of the term is applied to various situations and civilizations within history despite its popular misassociation with a numerical, statistical minority. In the social sciences, the term "minority" is used to refer to categories of persons who hold fewer positions of social power.

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 prone to different treatment in the countries and societies in which they live. The 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 by social structures that are not equally accessible to all. Activists campaigning on a range of issues may use the language of minority rights, including student rights, consumer rights, and animal rights.


There is a controversy with the use of the word minority.[1] Cultural diversity definitions can be as controversial as diversity projects and initiatives. The word minority is an example; it has an academic and a colloquial usage. Academics refer to power differences among groups rather than differences in population size among groups.[2]

Feagin (1984) [3] states that a minority group has five characteristics: (1) suffering discrimination and subordination, (2) physical and/or cultural traits that set them apart, and which are disapproved by the dominant group, (3) a shared sense of collective identity and common burdens, (4) socially shared rules about who belongs and who does not determine minority status, and (5) tendency to marry within the group.

Historically excluded groups (HEGs) is a term that points out the differences among different groups based on the degree of experiencing oppression and domination. The Feagin defining features are maintained, and with the complications of using demographics overcome.


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."[4] The 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.

Every large society contains ethnic minorities and linguistic minorities. Their style of life, language, culture, and origin can differ from the majority. The minority status is conditioned not only by a clearly numerical relations but also by questions of political power. In some places, subordinate ethnic groups may constitute a numerical majority, such as Blacks in South Africa under apartheid. In addition to the "traditional" (longtime resident) minorities they may be migrant, indigenous or landless nomadic communities. There is no legal definition of national (ethnic) minorities in international law. Only in Europe is this exact definition (probably) provided by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In the United States, for example, European Americans constitute the majority (72.4%) and all other racial groups (African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians) are classified as "minorities". If the non-Hispanic white population falls below 50% the group will only be the plurality, not the majority. However, national minority can be theoretically (not legally)[5] defined as a group of people within a given national state:

  1. which is numerically smaller than the rest of population of the state or a part of the state,
  2. which is not in a dominant position,
  3. which has culture, language, religion, race etc. distinct from that of the majority of the population,
  4. whose members have a will to preserve their specificity,
  5. whose members are citizens of the state where they have the status of a minority, and
  6. which have a long-term presence on the territory where it has lived.

International criminal law can protect the rights of racial or ethnic minorities in a number of ways.[6] The right to self-determination is a key issue. The formal level of protection of national (ethnic) minorities is highest in European countries.[7]

Gender and sexuality minorities

Main article: Sexual minority

An understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in the Western world since the 19th century. The abbreviation LGBT is currently used to group these identities together. The term queer is sometimes understood as an umbrella term for all non-normative sexuality and gender expressions, but does not always seek to be understood as a minority; rather, as with many gay liberationists of the 1960s and 1970s, it sometimes represents an attempt to uncover and embrace the sexual diversity in everyone.

While in most societies, numbers of men and women are roughly equal, the perceived status of women as a "subordinate" group has led some (i.e., the feminist and pro-women's rights movements) to equate them with minorities.[8] In addition, various gender variant people can be seen as constituting a minority group or groups, such as intersex people, transgender people, and gender nonconformists (i.e. metrosexuals) — especially when such phenomena are understood as intrinsic characteristics of an identifiable group. (see The Yogyakarta Principles)

Religious minorities

Main article: Religious minorities

Persons belonging to religious minorities have a faith which is different from that held by the majority. Most countries of the world have religious minorities. It is now widely accepted in the west that people should have the freedom to choose their own religion, including not having any religion (atheism and/or agnosticism), and including the right to convert from one religion to another. However, in many countries this freedom is constricted. For example, in Egypt, a new system of identity cards[9] requires all citizens to state their religion - and the only choices are Islam, Christianity, or Judaism (See Egyptian identification card controversy).

Age minorities

The elderly, while traditionally influential or even (in a gerontocracy) dominant in the past, are now usually reduced to the minority role of economically 'non-active' groups. Children can also be understood as a minority group in these terms, and the discrimination faced by the young is known as adultism. Discrimination against the elderly is known as ageism.

Various local and international statutes are in place to mitigate the exploitation of children, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as a number of organizations that make up the children's rights movement. The youth rights movement campaigns for social empowerment for young people, and against the legal and social restrictions placed on legal minors. Groups that advocate the interests of senior citizens range from the charitable (Help the Aged) to grass-roots activism (Gray Panthers), and often overlap with disability rights issues.

People with disabilities

The disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of people with disabilities (including not to be called 'disabled') 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 emphasize 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. The deaf community is often regarded as a linguistic and cultural minority rather than a group with disabilities, and some deaf people do not see themselves as having a disability at all. Rather, they are disadvantaged by technologies and social institutions that are designed to cater for the dominant group. (See the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.)

Political minorities

One of the most controversial minorities in the United States and various other countries has been communists. Along with the Red Scare and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg the United States ran open campaigns to eliminate communism in the United States. An important note is that not all people who were persecuted as communists actually were. Many civil rights activists of various types were also seen as pushing a communist agenda of equality.

Involuntary minorities in education

Also known as "castelike minorities", involuntary minorities are a term for people who were originally brought into any society against their will. In the United States, for instance, it includes both Native Americans and African Americans[10] and others that are involuntary minorities, including non-immigrant-Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and some Chinese.[11] For reasons of cultural attitudes, they tend to experience difficulties with school learning than members of other minority groups. Social capital helps children engage with different age groups that share a common goal.[12]

Voluntary minorities in education

They are people who have moved to the United States or any other country. They are in hopes of obtaining a better future usually economically, educationally, and politically than the one they were receiving in their homeland or place of origin. Because they have migrated with hopes of success, voluntary minorities are more likely to do better in school in comparison to other migrating minorities.[10] Cultural shock and the lack of understanding a new language make the initial stage of moving to a different country be difficult but they are eventually bettered. They do not experience a sense of dual frame as much as involuntary minorities but are still considered to have social capital because they are still very educationally orientated.[12] Central and South Americans, Mexicans, Cubans, Africans, and Indians are a few examples of the places voluntary minorities originate from.[11]

Regional minorities

Authors have pointed out that many coal workers would be unwilling to move for work or were not likely to be able to be retrained as Appalachians are an "ethnic minority"[13]

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 Canada, China, Ethiopia, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Croatia, and the United Kingdom.

Differing minority groups often are not given identical treatment. Some groups are too small or too indistinct compared to the majority. They either identify as part of the same nation as the members of the majority or 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 so 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, 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 guarantee them comprehensive protection and political representation. As an example, the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes the three main nations, none of which constitutes a numerical majority, as constitutive nations, see nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, other minorities such as Romani and Jews, are officially labelled as "others" and are excluded from many of these protections. For example, they may not be elected to a range of high political positions including the presidency.[14]

The issue of establishing minority groups and determining the extent of privileges that they might derive from their status are subjects of some debate. One view[15] is that the application of special rights to minority groups may be inappropriate in some countries, like new states in Africa or Latin America (not founded on the European nation-state model), where recognition and rights accorded to specific groups may interfere with the state's need to establish a cohesive identity and 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 people dominant English-speaking majority to integrate French Canadians has given rise to Quebec separatism. That position is countered by those[16] who assert that members of minorities require specific provisions and rights to ensure that they are not marginalised within society (for example, bilingual education may be needed to allow linguistic minorities to fully integrate into the school system and hence compete on a level playing field in society), and that rights for minorities, far from weakening the nation-building project, actually strengthen it; where members of minorities see that their specific needs and ambitions have been acknowledged and catered for, they will commit themselves more willingly to accepting the legitimacy of the nation and their integration (as opposed to assimilation) within it.

See also


  1. Diversity Training University International (2008). Cultural Diversity Glossary of Terms. Diversity Training University International Publications Division. p. 4.
  2. Barzilai, Gad (2003). Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. University of Michigan Press.
  3. Joe R. Feagin (1984). Racial and Ethnic Relations (2nd ed.). Prentice-Hall. p. 10. ISBN 0-13-750125-0.
  4. Wirth, L: "The Problem of Minority Groups," p. 347 in Ralph Linton (ed.), The Science of Man in the World Crisis. New York:Columbia University Press, 1945. The political scientist and law professor, Gad Barzilai, has offered a theoretical definition of non-ruling communities that conceptualizes groups that do not rule and are excluded from resources of political power. Barzilai, G. Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  5. Daniel Šmihula (2009). "Definition of national minorities in international law" (PDF). Journal of US-China Public Administration. 6 (5): 45–51.
  6. Lyal S. Sunga (2004). International Criminal Law: Protection of Minority Rights, Beyond a One-Dimensional State: An Emerging Right to Autonomy? ed. Zelim Skurbaty. (2004) 255–275.
  7. Daniel Šmihula (2008). "National Minorities in the Law of the EC/EU" (PDF). Romanian Journal of European Affairs. 8 (3): 51–81.
  8. Hacker, Helen Mayer. 1951. Women as a minority group. Social Forces, 30, 1951, pp. 60-69. Article online
  9. See "The Situation of the Bahá'í Community of Egypt" and "Religion Today: Bahais' struggle for recognition reveals a less tolerant face of Egypt", Bahai.org, DWB.sacbee.com
  10. 1 2 Ogbu, John U. "Understanding Cultural Diversity and Learning" (PDF).
  11. 1 2 Ogbu and Simons (1998). "Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education" (PDF). Anthropology and Education Quarterly.
  12. 1 2 Valenzuela, Angela. Subtractive Schooling. pp. 116–118.
  13. Opinion of the Council of Europe's Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, in particular paragraphs 37–43
  14. For example, J.A. Lindgren-Alves, member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, speaking at the Committee's 67th Session (Summary Record of the 1724th Meeting, 23 August 2005, CERD/C/SR.1724)
  15. See K. Henrard, Devising an Adequate System of Minority Protection: Individual Human Rights, Minority Rights and the Right to Self-Determination (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2000) pp. 218–224

External links

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