The Concept of Race in Science – A Debate

Race is a label. Race does not exist. Race is still an issue. These are some of the apparently contradictory statements that we can find in the debate, a subject with renewed tension in the US after a series of shootings of unarmed “black” men in the US by “white” policemen.

Race is a slippery concept, and an uncomfortable one, because it is related to the marking of differences and divisions among human beings in a society that is supposed to be advanced enough to acknowledge the importance of equality.

Its use is an act of classification that immediately sets boundaries between people and defines an environment in which discrimination can occur. For many, race is a concept based on stereotypical, perceived differences of language, body or ancestry which have their roots in colonialist views.

For example, the “Hispanic race” is a product of the power and influence of Spanish colonisers over the dominated groups in America, while the “African American race” is a label related to the migrants who were taken to America often as a result of the slave trade.

If race is considered as a product of domination and inequality, then we should avoid the term. But we can’t, because it is still a big issue in the so-called “developed world”, as can be seen with the recent unrest in the US. If we do not refer to race or the racialization of groups, as an unresolved issue related to discriminatory practices and inequality, then how can we address it?

Even in the field of neuroscience, and as an attempt to be inclusive, most scientific studies regarding genetics and biological psychiatry choose to identify the “race” of the participants.

The simple act of identifying someone’s race is an act of marking differences and consolidating the use of the concept itself. The use of race has often been replaced by the use of other concepts to classify people, such as “culture”. Such terms possess complex problems of their own since they are also broad and require interpretation.

For some scientists the only way of dealing with the concept of race is avoiding it entirely but some speculate that this will merely leave them in a state of denial. Others suggest that it may create functional limitations which are at least bureaucratically useful.

Some scientists such as Heinz are optimistic in this regard and state that genetic research will soon provide such detailed, personalized information that classifications such as race may come to be regarded as increasingly cumbersome and relatively meaningless.


Morning, A. (2006) ‘On Distinction’, Is Race Real? Accessed 20 March 2010.

Heinz A, Müller DJ, Krach S, Cabanis M, & Kluge UP (2014). The uncanny return of the race concept. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 25408642

Image via Nickolya / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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