Prejudice and discrimination have a variety of causes from a sociological viewpoint. While prejudice refers to an attitude, discrimination is action or behavior often arising from prejudiced beliefs.
Socialization is a sociological process referring to the influences a youth experiences growing up. Prejudice is taught and promoted through socialization when children, largely unconsciously, observe and learn prejudiced attitudes from family, community, and the media. Conformity also perpetuates prejudiced ideas and behaviors. If a dominant group benefits from prejudiced ideas and behaviors against a minority, they can seek to maintain their dominance by, in effect, enforcing that members of the dominant group conform to the shared prejudice.
Another sociological factor that leads to prejudice and discrimination is socioeconomic status. People of lower social status can be motivated to maintain or elevate their status through feeling superior to others. A similar cause of prejudice is the fear that the “other” minority group poses a real or imagined threat. For example, prejudice may develop because a person perceives immigrants as posing a threat because of competition over jobs. Another example is prejudice against Muslims because of the perceived threat of terrorism. The media can contribute to these perceived threats through stereotyped portrayals of minorities. A related effect is scapegoating, singling out a minority group as the perceived cause of a negative situation.
Ethnocentrism and nationalism are other sociological causes of prejudice and discrimination. Ethnocentrism means feeling one’s ethnic group is superior to others; nationalism means favoring one’s country over others. These feelings of superiority can develop into prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviors, often directed against immigrants and other less “assimilated” minority groups.
There are three main perspectives in sociology. These are structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. These perspectives would each explain racial discrimination in a different way.
Structural functionalism holds that every aspect of society is like an organ in a human body. It is needed to keep society stable and healthy. From this perspective, discrimination must play (or must have once played) an important role. For example, it might have helped to create more solidarity within the white community, thus enhancing the stability of society at a time when whites were the vast majority of the population.
Conflict theorists hold that aspects of society come about through conflict between groups. They would say that racial discrimination is an aspect of that conflict. Whites discriminate against blacks, for example, because whites have won their conflict with blacks. The discrimination is also part of that conflict as it helps whites maintain their superiority over blacks.
Symbolic interactionists look at the world on a much more micro scale. They look at how people conceive of one another. They would say that discrimination exists because the people of different races choose to see themselves as different from one another. They would argue that discrimination is waning as people stop seeing one another in this way.
Thus, the three perspectives each see racial discrimination in a different way.