In This Article Discrimination

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Intentional Discrimination
  • Disparate Impact
  • Unconscious Discrimination
  • Data Sources

Sociology Discrimination
Issa Kohler-Hausmann
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0013


Discrimination is an action or practice that excludes, disadvantages, or merely differentiates between individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of some ascribed or perceived trait, although the definition itself is subject to substantial debate. The sociological study of discrimination could be divided into two types of inquiries: discrimination as a social phenomenon to be explained and discrimination as an explanation for other observed social phenomenon. Discrimination has been addressed by a wide range of disciplines as an explanatory object—including sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, economics, and law—all seeking to shed light on why discrimination occurs and what conditions give rise to and reproduce its practice. What distinguishes a sociological approach to discrimination as an explanatory object from that in other disciplines, namely psychology or economics, is its insistence on looking at the macro level of analysis, explaining the phenomenon as a result of social processes not necessarily reducible to individual-level preferences or cognitive processes. Sociologists have also addressed discrimination as an explanation for an observed phenomenon of interest, namely social stratification: the unequal distribution of status, material benefits, and political rights.


Defining discrimination is a difficult task. Selecting among the competing definitions of discrimination has not only theoretical implications, but also methodological implications, because the definition determines the scope of empirical inquiry and appropriate methods for identification and study of the phenomenon. Because discrimination is typically considered something antithetical to norms of fair and equal treatment in a democratic market society, there are also significant normative implications to defining discrimination. Most definitions of discrimination cluster around two related yet distinguishable means of defining the phenomenon: intentional discrimination and disparate impact. Each of these two broad classes of definitions admits of a number of competing subdefinitions. Pager and Shepherd 2008 and Blank, et al. 2004 offer discussions of competing definitions of discrimination and maintain that most definitions fall in one of these two camps. Discrimination is often distinguished from other related phenomena such as racism, sexism, prejudice, or stereotypes in that discrimination refers to a set of behaviors, whereas the other concepts refer to ideology, attitudes, or beliefs that might, or might not, translate into discriminatory actions. Allport 1954 is a classic and seminal conceptual treatment of discrimination, explored in relation to cognitive and attitudinal dispositions such as categorization, stereotypes, and prejudice. Given the wide range of plausible definitions of discrimination, a researcher must first identify and justify his or her choice of a definition of discrimination before embarking on an explanatory or empirical agenda.

  • Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a seminal text in sociology and the social psychology of discrimination, in which the author proposes that individuals with negative attitudes toward what he terms “out-groups” behaviorally express these attitudes in one of five scaled manners: antilocution, avoidance, discrimination, physical attack, or extermination.

  • Blank, Rebecca M., Marilyn Dabady, and Constance F. Citro. 2004. Defining discrimination. In Measuring racial discrimination. Edited by Rebecca M. Blank, Marilyn Dabady, and Constance F. Citro, 55–70. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chapter 3 has a brief and accessible discussion of the various definitions of racial discrimination, which is applicable to discrimination against other types of groups. This chapter also motivates the discussion on racial discrimination by presenting data on differential outcomes between white and black Americans in five different domains: education, labor market, the criminal justice system, the housing market, mortgage lending, and health care.

  • Pager, Devah, and Hana Shepherd. 2008. The sociology of discrimination: Racial discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and consumer markets. Annual Review of Sociology 34:181–209.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.33.040406.131740E-mail Citation »

    An overview of recent empirical work on racial discrimination in labor markets, housing, and credit markets. The paper starts with a brief discussion of the concept of discrimination and methods for detecting and measuring its presence.

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