The Position of Minoritiesfootnote

How do we identify minority groups? What are the common denominators? Though we all know the answer—or assume that we know it—the question is not, I believe, an unnecessary one.

The term “minority group” has essentially a quantitative meaning—a minority as distinct from a majority. And yet when we use the term we do not apply it to the indubitable minorities in our societies,—the most visible ones; the elites, singled out because they are in positions of economic and political power, or of exceptional distinction in the scientific and cultural scene. When we speak of minorities, here or elsewhere, we do not refer to the directors of Shell, of Krupps or of the Bank of England; to Mr. Nehru’s or Mr. Kennedy’s cabinets; to Nobel prize winners, royal families or Hollywood stars; nor even to that lofty team, Nikolayev and Popovich—this summer undeniably the most remarkable minority among mankind. Just because they are so distinctive, all such minorities, in the quantitative sense, do not look like minorities. They are taken for granted as top members of social hierarchies, national or international; and indeed as agents, exponents and symbols of national or supra-national integration.

By contrast, the groups which we usually acknowledge as minorities are among the mass of the people—among them and yet at the margins. It is that—the marginal location, the not-belonging or notquite-belonging—rather than the relative size of the group, which is the most distinctive, and thus also the most general characteristic of the so-called minorities. For various reasons—ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, occupational specialization, social custom; or because of a combination of these and other factors— minorities are regarded, and often regard themselves, as being different; as being somehow apart; as outsiders.

But different from what? Apart from whom? Outside what? The criteria of differentiation are elusive because they are dependent upon a deceptively simple, dichotomous, two-dimensional geography of social structure—upon the assumption of fixed boundaries, irrespective of the scale and the vantage point of observation. And so the criteria become once again circular: we talk of minorities as distinct from the “majority society”, although there may be no such singular entity at all.

While minority groups cannot, therefore, be defined either by indices of mere numbers or by precise social location, the latter aspect, however vague—that of their “apartness”—nevertheless brings us nearer to the primary element in the definition and condition of minorities. Both in practice and theory, hard or soft, minority groups are distinguished not in quantitative but in qualitative terms: they are categorized as such because of their social status; their identity is determined and perpetuated by their social status.

It is never a homogeneously high social status; and though it may not be a homogeneously or unambiguously low social status either, it is invariably a vulnerable one, associated with notions of inferiority.footnote1 By and large, minority groups belong to, or are heavily concentrated in, the “lower orders”— or even among the lowest of the low. And they may be so placed as a result of various circumstances: by deliberate direction and segregation; through the cumulative effects of deprivation and insecurity; or because, as migrants, they have in fact at some time come from the “outside”, and are thus liable to be seen and treated as a distinct group of strangers and competitors. Whatever the particular circumstances and modes of differentiation, members of minority groups are socially placed primarily not on grounds of their individual origins, conditions and aptitudes—but in their capacities as members of a group to which particular roles and locations in society are assigned, explicitly or implicitly. The minority group is in a sense created, and certainly maintained, by such collective status assignation.