Sociologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are taking a new approach to their fields and how they understand race.
Their new project, The Black-White Divide: How Social Sciences Are Misunderstanding Race, was developed as part of the National Science Foundation-funded project to examine the way in which the field is defining race.
They are using their expertise to explore how sociology has developed a concept of race that they see as fundamentally flawed, and in some cases racially biased.
Here are five points to keep in mind.
First, sociologist Jennifer P. McQuillan says her project is not about trying to define the boundaries of race, but about looking at what social science has taught us about race in general and the role that race can play in understanding race in particular.
“The problem is, it’s really difficult to define what is or isn’t race,” she said.
“Race is a very, very fuzzy concept.
I think what it boils down to is the fact that race is defined by the social interactions that we engage in, and that the experiences of our social group determine who we are.”
For example, if you are a white person who identifies as African-American and you come from a historically black community, McQuilans says, you are more likely to be categorized as black.
“In order to make this distinction between African-Americans and white people, we need to understand that this is not simply a question of having some ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ race, this is a question about whether we are in a group of people who are different,” she explained.
“It’s not a question that’s really been asked by sociologically or empirically.”
This can lead to people who have lived in a particular race for a long time, or have a close family history, for example, being seen as different, Mcquillan said.
It also leads to white people being seen in the community as less capable of social skills than black people, which McQuillin said can be problematic because of how it can affect the perceptions of people of color.
“A lot of the racial stereotypes are about people who don’t have the same capacity for social skills that black people have,” she noted.
“What we’re trying to do is look at how race is actually shaping the social world and how that shapes the perceptions that people have about themselves and the people around them.”
She said that one way that sociologies is changing how race has been defined is by focusing on the ways that different groups have interacted in society and how the social environment impacts race.
For example: if you’ve never been in a bar, or had a white friend, then you may be more likely than someone who is white to see people of different races as having different social skills.
This can also have a detrimental effect on how people of other races view themselves.
“If you’re a young black person and you’ve been through the trauma of living in a black community where you’ve experienced a lot of violence, and you don’t fit in with the group, and the cultural norms around what it means to be black are so strong, and there are so many barriers to your ability to fit in, then then you can be seen as more dangerous, and as a potential danger to yourself,” McQurillan said, adding that there are also problems with how people who identify as African American are perceived by others, including white people.
“There’s a lot more to race than just a set of traits, which is what sociologists have done so well with.”
McQuillans said the project aims to examine how the field has been defining race in a way that it is biased and discriminatory, and to develop a new understanding of how race should be defined.
She added that this project is about creating an “equitable and reflective” definition of race and a better understanding of what constitutes a legitimate identity.
“I’m hoping that we’ll find a better way of defining race, and hopefully that will help us be more respectful of the identities that we hold and the experiences that we have,” Mcquillin said.
According to the report, a number of sociologist and social scientists are involved in this project, including sociometrician and social scientist Nancy D. O’Leary, sociological professor at University of Maryland and sociology professor at the College of William and Mary, and sociologist and social psychologist Richard J. Stengel, who wrote the study’s preprint.
The research team is led by sociologist Elizabeth A. Pyle and sociophysicist Paul D. Stegman.
The project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Council, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Institutes of Health, and National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation.
For more news, visit the ABC News website.