Race, Ethnicity & Family Research Paper Starter

Race, Ethnicity & Family

This article focuses on the connections between race, ethnicity, and family in the context of sociological study. It explores the sociology of race, ethnicity, and family in three parts: an overview of the sociology of race and ethnicity, the history of race and ethnicity in the United States, the sociology of the family, major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, and family structures of ethnic groups living in the United States; a description of the ways in which sociologists study the effects that race, ethnicity, and family have on a wide variety of social behaviors; and a discussion of the issues associated with the US federal government's classifications of race and ethnicity. Understanding how sociologists conceptualize and study the connections between race, ethnicity, and family is vital for those interested in the sociology of family and relationships.

Keywords African American; American Indian; Asian; Ethnicity; Family; Native Hawaiian; Hispanic; Race; White



Understanding how sociologists conceptualize and study the connections between race, ethnicity, and family is vital for those interested in the sociology of family and relationships. Common sociological questions concerning race, ethnicity, and family include the following:

  • How are race, ethnicity, and family connected?
  • Are different races and ethnicities associated with particular family structures?
  • Do race, ethnicity, and family structure influence individual or societal development and experience?

With these questions in mind, the following is an overview of the sociology and history of race and ethnicity in the United States.

Sociology of Race

Social scientists study the economic, social, and political experiences of different races and ethnicities. According to Brown, Hitlin, and Elder (2006; citing Pearlman and Waters, 2002), "ethnicity involves grouping people by geographic origins, while race—in the demographic sense . . . —involves specialized groupings by ancestry as understood through the prism of American history" (p. 412). While many sociologists differentiate between race and ethnicity, others criticize this practice, suggesting that a sociological distinction between race and ethnicity is an obsolete analytical construct that may obscure or obstruct the fluid processes of identity making and group identification (Brown, Hitlin, & Elder, 2006).

Sociologists concern themselves with both the objective and the subjective experiences of race and ethnicity, focusing on areas of inquiry such as demographics, discrimination, racism, desegregation, immigration, racial profiling, social inequality, race-based policies, pluralism, and multiculturalism. They increasingly explore how race and ethnicity affect and interact with the individual experience or practice of religion, nationality, identity, sexuality, education, income, gender roles, and family structure.

The History of Race

The categories of race and ethnicity have influenced American society and scholarship since the founding of the modern state. The federal government, with the help of applied social scientists, has collected race-based statistics since the first population census in 1790. During this census, African American slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, and American Indians were not counted. During the eighteenth century, race, which was believed to influence character, moral, intellect, and ultimately rights, was viewed as relevant and important for analysis of social, political, and economic variables. Since 1900, the US federal government has used 26 different racial terms to identify populations in the US Census.

Race and ethnicity has influenced voting, housing, education, and civil rights policy in the United States from the eighteenth century through the present. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights movement raised public consciousness about the discrimination faced by minority groups in public and private institutions, and programs such as affirmative action and the Civil Rights Act were created to remedy race-based economic and social discrimination in America. In the twenty-first century, the definition of race no longer has connotations of rank and superiority, but the category of race remains influential in government census taking and policy making (Chiswick, 1984).


Sociologists study various types of family structures. The traditional nuclear family, a concept identified and named by sociologists in the 1950s, refers to a unit of family that includes two heterosexual parents and their children. Sociologists began identifying and naming alternative family structures in the 1960s and 1970s. Alternative family structures refer to non-traditional family structures such as cohabitation, gay and lesbian families, single parents, family networks, affiliated families, and communes.

In addition to sociologists, the US government also engages in significant efforts to gather data on families and define (and thus, in some respects, legitimize) certain family structures. In 2012, the US Census Bureau collected the following data about the US population's family structures. Of the total population, approximately 48 percent of American adults were married and living with their spouse. Of families with only one parent, approximately 41 percent of single parents had never married, 5 percent were widowed, 18 percent were separated, and 36 percent were divorced (Vespa, Lewis, & Kreider, 2013).

In 2011, the total population of 311.6 million people lived in 115 million discrete households. Of these 115 million households, 66.2 percent contained an officially recognized family unit. (The government defines a family as two or more people related by blood, marriage, or adoption.) A little less than half of all family households (48.8 percent) included children under the age of eighteen. That said, only 31.6 percent of family households were traditional or nuclear families with married parents and minor children. The remaining types of households were people living alone (27.7 percent of all households), two or more unrelated people living together (6.0 percent), married couples with no children under eighteen (27.3 percent), and nontraditional family structures not headed by a married couple of opposite sexes (17.9 percent) (Vespa, Lewis, & Kreider, 2013).

The number of traditional families dropped approximately 18 percentage points between 1970 and 2011. In 2012, single-mother families numbered 12.0 million, of which 10.3 million included children under eighteen; single-father families numbered 2.5 million, with 2.0 million having children under eighteen (Vespa, Lewis, & Kreider, 2013). Of all children under age eighteen, 6.2 percent live in households headed by one or more grandparent (US Census Bureau, 2012). Difficulty in gathering demographic data on families is due to reporting error, unofficial family relationships and structures, and limitations of census categories.

Major Racial

This section describes the major ethnic groups living in the United States. The US federal government's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is responsible for establishing the standards and categories used to measure and assess race and ethnicity in America. As specified in the Statistical Policy Directive No. 15, the OMB recognizes five categories for race and two for ethnicity, which are used for federal statistics, program administration, and civil rights enforcement. The race categories are American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White; the ethnicity categories are Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino.

  • American Indian or Alaska Native refers to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment."
  • Asian refers to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam."
  • Black or African American refers to "a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as 'Haitian' or 'Negro' can be used in addition to 'Black or African American.'"
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander refers to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands."
  • White refers to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa."
  • Hispanic or Latino refers to "a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race. The term 'Spanish origin' can be used in addition to 'Hispanic or Latino'" (Office of Management and Budget, 1997).

These categories are the product of 1997 revisions that made the following changes:

  • First, the Asian or Pacific Islander category was separated into two separate categories, "Asian"...

(The entire section is 4090 words.)