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In sociology and in voting theory, a minority is a sub-group that forms less than half of the population, and — as a rule — is outnumbered by at least one other sub-group. (That is, it does not form either a majority or a plurality.) This can be used to categorize people of a different language, nationality, religion, culture, lifestyle or any characteristic, provided these people are accepted as part of the referent group.

A majority, in sociological terms, is that segment of the population that outnumbers all others combined, one that is dominant. The term minority is unavoidably associated with the political movements which push for assimilation, in which the minority group sheds its distinctive traits and is absorbed into the dominant group.

In the politics of some countries, a minority is an ethnic group that is recognized as such by respective laws of its country and therefore has some rights that other groups lack. 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 that have special provisions for minorities include Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (which does maintain the concept of a British supra-nation, however).

Differing minority groups often are not given identical treatment. Some groups are too small or too indistinct compared to the majority, that they either identify as part of the same nation as the members of the majority, or they identify as a separate nation but are are ignored by the majority because of the costs or some other aspect of providing preferences. For example, a member of a particularly small ethnic group might be forced to check "Other" on a checklist of different backgrounds, and consequently 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. Examples of this are France and Greece. The United States asks for race and ethnicity on its official census forms, which thus breaks up and organizes its population into different sub-groups, but primarily on racial origin rather than national one. Spain does not divide its nationals by ethnic group, although it does maintain an official notion of minority languages.

Some minorities are so relatively large or historically or otherwise important that the system is set up in a way to ensure complete equality. As an example, the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes the three main nations, none of which constitute a numerical majority, as constitutive nations, see nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The issue of establishing minority groups, and determining the extent of privileges they might derive from their status, is controversial. There are some who argue that minorities are owed special recognition and rights, while others feel that minorities are unjustified in demanding special rights, as this amounts to preferential discrimination and could hamper the ability of the minority to integrate itself into mainstream society - perhaps to the point at which the minority follows a path to separatism or supremacism. In Canada, some feel that the failure of the dominant English-speaking majority to assimilate French Canadians has given rise to Quebec separatism.

One particularly controversial issue is affirmative action, or positive discrimination: the idea that minorities should be granted special privileges that the majority does not enjoy. An example of this is when an individual of minority status is given preference for acceptance to a university over a more- or equally-qualified non-minority, in order to fulfill a quota of minorities in the student body. Critics of these policies often refer to them as reverse discrimination and argue that they are perpetrating new wrongs to counter old ones, and instilling a sense of victimhood in the majority. Proponents of the polices argue that the end result—a more diversified student body—justifies the means. The debate is likely to continue into the future.

See also


Last updated: 05-21-2005 01:14:04