Who constitute the minority then, and how to define it? The concept of ‘minority group’ is an important one in sociology, and it is used in a specific manner. Let us now try to understand its nature.
Meaning and Definition of Minority Group:
1. The Dictionary Meaning [Chambers Dictionary] of the word minority is – “less than half, “the smaller number, “the condition or fact of being little or less.”
2. The New Encyclopaedia Britanica:
‘The most common general description of a minority group used, is of – an aggregate of people who are distinct in religion language, or nationality from other members of the society in which they live and who think of themselves, and are thought of by others, as being separate and distinct.”
3. N.J. Smelser:
A minority group may be defined 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. Wallace and Wallace:
“A minority group is one which has less power and influence than the dominant group.”
5. Richard T. Schaefer:
“A minority group is a sub-ordinate group whose members have significantly less control or power over their own lives than the members of a dominant group has over theirs.”
Sociologists have identified five basic properties of a minority group such as – physical or cultural traits, unequal treatment, ascribed status, solidarity, and in-group marriage.
Members of a minority group share physical or cultural characteristics that distinguish them from the dominant group. The characteristics and boundaries of a minority group are socially defined on arbitrary grounds.
Thus, for example, all people sharing some visible or noticeable [physical or non-physical] characteristics, such as skin colour, religion or language are grouped together into a single category. What particular characteristic is used to make this differentiation matters very little, but it is believed to be of great social importance.
Further, individual characteristics of a minority group member are regarded as less important than the branded or assumed characteristics of the group to which the individual belongs.
Self-Conscious Group with a Strong Sense of Oneness:
Minority group members have a strong sense of group solidarity. Members of a minority, such as Jews in America, Muslims in India, Tamilians in Srilanka, Blacks in America, Palestinians in Middle East tend to feel a strong affinity with one another. Their sense of common identity or “consciousness of kind”, is often so strong that differences within the group are neglected and a common loyalty to the group is developed.
The minority group’s shared experience of suffering heightens these feelings. When a group is the object of long term prejudice and discrimination, the feelings of group solidarity are likely to become more intense.
Minority Group Suffers from Unequal Treatment:
Members of a minority group experience unequal treatment and have less power over their lives than members of a dominant group have over theirs. They suffer disadvantages at the hands of another group.
The minority is denied equal access to power, wealth and prestige. What is more significant here is that – the minority’s disadvantage itself is an important source of the dominant group’s advantage. The dominant group exploits the minority relegating its members to low status positions in society.
Social inequality is meted out to the minority group they are exploited, and are made to become the victims of prejudice, discrimination, abuse, and humiliation. They are also considered by deeply held social beliefs as somewhat “inferior”
Membership in a dominant or a minority group is not voluntary people are born into the group. Thus, race and ethnicity are considered as “ascribed” statuses. Common ancestry and common tradition often lead to a sense of common identity.
It is often difficult for a member of a minority group to leave the group, for the reason that dominant group regards any one with minority group ancestry as a permanent member of that minority.
In America, for example, a person with one black parent, or even a person with white parents and only one black grandparent – is still regarded as black rather than white.
5. Minority People Marry Within the Group:
Members of a minority generally get married from the same group by choice or necessity. This practice of endogamy may be encouraged by the dominant group, or by the minority group, or by both.
A member of a dominant group is often unwilling to join a supposedly inferior minority by marrying one of its members. In addition, the minority group’s sense of solidarity encourages marriages within the group and discourages marriages outside.
In addition to the above explained five characteristics of the minority group, we may add a sixth one. It is stated below.
6. Minority Status Does Not Always Depend Upon Numerical Strength:
In some peculiar circumstances, a minority group can sometimes be a numerical majority. Minority group status is not always a matter of numbers; on the contrary, it is determined by the presence of the distinguishing features explained above. The situation in which a community which has numerical majority assuming a minority status is rather very strange and rare. But such situations do exist in our practical life.
(i) In the African country of the Burundi, the small Tutsi tribe dominates the large Hutu tribe,
(ii) In South Africa the small White population dominates the much larger Black population.