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A minority group refers to a category of people differentiated from the social majority, those who hold the majority of positions of social power in a society, and it may be defined by law. Rather than a relational "social group", as the term would indicate, "minority group" refers to the above-described. The differentiation can be based on one or more observable human characteristics, including: ethnicity, race, religion, disability, gender, wealth, health or sexual orientation. Usage of the term is applied to various situations and civilizations within history despite its popular misassociation with a numerical, statistical minority (Barzilai, 2010). In the social sciences, the term "minority" is sometimes used to describe social power relations between dominant and subordinate groups, rather than simply indicating demographic variation within a population. Furthermore, from an intersectional sociological perspective, any given individual may simultaneously occupy both a majority identity and a minority identity, depending on the intersection of different social categories (e.g. around age, religion, gender, and so on).
The term "minority group" often occurs alongside a discourse of civil rights and collective rights which gained prominence in the 20th century. Members of minority groups are prone to different treatment in the countries and societies in which they live. The discrimination may be directly based on an individual's perceived membership of a minority group, without consideration of that individual's personal achievement. It may also occur indirectly by social structures that are not equally accessible to all. Activists campaigning on a range of issues may use the language of minority rights, including student rights, consumer rights, and animal rights.
There is a controversy with the use of the word minority. Cultural diversity definitions can be as controversial as diversity projects and initiatives. The word minority is an example; it has an academic and a colloquial usage. Academics refer to power differences among groups rather than differences in population size among groups.
Feagin (1984) states that a minority group has five characteristics: (1) suffering discrimination and subordination, (2) physical and/or cultural traits that set them apart, and which are disapproved by the dominant group, (3) a shared sense of collective identity and common burdens, (4) socially shared rules about who belongs and who does not determine minority status, and (5) tendency to marry within the group.
Historically excluded groups (HEGs) is a term that points out the differences among different groups based on the degree of experiencing oppression and domination. The Feagin defining features are maintained, and with the complications of using demographics overcome .
Sociologist Louis Wirth defined a minority group 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". The definition includes both objective and subjective criteria: membership of a minority group is objectively ascribed by society, based on an individual's physical or behavioral characteristics; it is also subjectively applied by its members, who may use their status as the basis of group identity or solidarity. In any case, minority group status is categorical in nature: an individual who exhibits the physical or behavioral characteristics of a given minority group will be accorded the status of that group and be subject to the same treatment as other members of that group.
Every large society contains ethnic minorities and linguistic minorities. Their style of life, language, culture, and origin can differ from the majority. The minority status is conditioned not only by a clearly numerical relations but also by questions of political power. In some places, subordinate ethnic groups may constitute a numerical majority, such as Blacks in South Africa under apartheid. In addition to the "traditional" (longtime resident) minorities they may be migrant, indigenous or landless nomadic communities. There is no legal definition of national (ethnic) minorities in international law. Only in Europe is this exact definition (probably) provided by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In the United States, for example, European Americans constitute the majority (72.4%) and all other racial groups (African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians) are classified as "minorities". If the non-Hispanic white population falls below 50% the group will only be the plurality, not the majority. However, national minority can be theoretically (not legally) defined as a group of people within a given national state:
International criminal law can protect the rights of racial or ethnic minorities in a number of ways. The right to self-determination is a key issue. The formal level of protection of national (ethnic) minorities is highest in European countries.
An understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in the Western world since the 19th century. The abbreviation LGBT is currently used to group these identities together. The term queer is sometimes understood as an umbrella term for all non-normative sexuality and gender expressions, but does not always seek to be understood as a minority; rather, as with many gay liberationists of the 1960s and 1970s, it sometimes represents an attempt to uncover and embrace the sexual diversity in everyone.
While in most societies, numbers of men and women are roughly equal, the perceived status of women as a "subordinate" group has led some (i.e., the feminist and pro-women's rights movements) to equate them with minorities. In addition, various gender variant people can be seen as constituting a minority group or groups, such as intersex people, transgender people, and gender nonconformists (i.e. metrosexuals)--especially when such phenomena are understood as intrinsic characteristics of an identifiable group. (see The Yogyakarta Principles)
Persons belonging to religious minorities have a faith which is different from that held by the majority. Most countries of the world have religious minorities. It is now widely accepted in the west that people should have the freedom to choose their own religion, including not having any religion (atheism and/or agnosticism), and including the right to convert from one religion to another. However, in many countries this freedom is constricted. For example, in Egypt, a new system of identity cards requires all citizens to state their religion--and the only choices are Islam, Christianity, or Judaism (See Egyptian identification card controversy).
The elderly, while traditionally influential or even (in a gerontocracy) dominant in the past, are now usually reduced to the minority role of economically 'non-active' groups. Children can also be understood as a minority group in these terms, and the discrimination faced by the young is known as adultism. Discrimination against the elderly is known as ageism.
Various local and international statutes are in place to mitigate the exploitation of children, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as a number of organizations that make up the children's rights movement. The youth rights movement campaigns for social empowerment for young people, and against the legal and social restrictions placed on legal minors. Groups that advocate the interests of senior citizens range from the charitable (Help the Aged) to grass-roots activism (Gray Panthers), and often overlap with disability rights issues.
The disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of people with disabilities (including not to be called 'disabled') as a minority or a coalition of minorities who are disadvantaged by society, not just as people who are disadvantaged by their impairments. Advocates of disability rights emphasize difference in physical or psychological functioning, rather than inferiority. For example, some people with autism argue for acceptance of neurodiversity, much as opponents of racism argue for acceptance of ethnic diversity. The deaf community is often regarded as a linguistic and cultural minority rather than a group with disabilities, and some deaf people do not see themselves as having a disability at all. Rather, they are disadvantaged by technologies and social institutions that are designed to cater for the dominant group. (See the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.)
One of the most controversial minorities in the United States and other countries has been communists. Along with the Red Scare and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the United States ran open campaigns to eliminate communism in the country. Some were persecuted as communist even when they were not actually so: for example, many activists for civil rights were portrayed as inspired by a communist agenda. Communists in the United States, as in many European countries, are often afraid to proclaim their politics, fearing abuse and discrimination from the political majority.
Also known as "castelike minorities", involuntary minorities are a term for people who were originally brought into any society against their will. In the United States, for instance, it includes but is not limited to Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and native born (non-emigrated) Mexican Americans. For reasons of cultural differences, involuntary minorities may experience difficulties in school more than members of other (voluntary) minority groups. Social capital helps children engage with different age groups that share a common goal.
Immigrants take on minority status in their new country, usually in hopes of a better future economically, educationally, and politically than in their homeland. Because of their focus on success, voluntary minorities are more likely to do better in school than other migrating minorities. Adapting to a very different culture and language make difficulties in the early stages of life in the new country. Voluntary immigrants do not experience a sense of divided identity as much as involuntary minorities, and are often rich in social capital because of their educational ambitions. Major immigrant groups in the United States include Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Cubans, Africans, and Indians.
Authors have pointed out that many coal workers would be unwilling to move for work or were not likely to be able to be retrained as Appalachians are an "ethnic minority".
Some sociologists have criticised the concept of "minority/majority", arguing this language excludes or neglects changing or unstable cultural identities, as well as cultural affiliations across national boundaries.
In the politics of some countries, a "minority" is an ethnic group recognized by law, and having specified rights. Speakers of a legally recognized minority language, for instance, might have the right to education or communication with the government in their mother tongue. Countries wtih special provisions[which?] for minorities include Canada, China, Ethiopia, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Croatia, and the United Kingdom.
The various minority groups in a country are often not given equal treatment. Some groups are too small or indistinct to obtain minority protections. For example, a member of a particularly small ethnic group might be forced to check "Other" on a checklist of different backgrounds and so might receive fewer privileges than a member of a more defined group.
Many contemporary governments prefer to assume the people they rule all belong to the same nationality rather than separate ones based on ethnicity. The United States asks for race and ethnicity on its official census forms, which thus breaks up and organizes its population into sub-groups, primarily racial rather than national. Spain does not divide its nationals by ethnic group, although it does maintain an official notion of minority languages.
Some especially significant or powerful minorities receive comprehensive protection and political representation. For example, the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes the three constitutive nations, none of which constitutes a numerical majority (see nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina). However, other minorities such as Romani and Jews, are officially labelled "foreign" and are excluded from many of these protections. For example, they may be excluded from political positions, including the presidency.
There is debate over recognizing minority groups and their privileges. One view is that the application of special rights to minority groups may harm some countries, such as new states in Africa or Latin America not founded on the European nation-state model, since minority recognition may interfere with establishing a national identity. It may hamper the integration of the minority into mainstream society, perhaps leading to separatism or supremacism. In Canada, some[who?] feel that the failure of the dominant English-speaking majority to integrate French Canadians has provoked Quebec separatism.
Others assert that minorities require specific protections to ensure that they are not marginalised: for example, bilingual education may be needed to allow linguistic minorities to fully integrate into the school system and compete equally in society. In this view, rights for minorities strengthen the nation-building project, as members of minorities see their interests well served, and willingly accept the legitimacy of the nation and their integration (not assimilation) within it.