A minority group is a distinct group of people in society – identifiable by common traits – who lack the collective numbers to sufficiently be protected from discrimination from society’s dominant groups.
In sociology, the most commonly cited definition comes from Wirth (1945), who defined minority groups 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”.
Minority groups include religious, cultural, ethnic, political, gender and sexually diverse, and disabled groups. Below are examples of each.
Minority Group Examples
A religious minority is often persecuted for their religious practices (or lack thereof), and stereotyped as different and untrustworthy.
Perhaps the clearest example of this was the persecution of Jewish people during WWII, where they were persecuted against out of a sense of distrust of Jewish businesspeople and cultural traits.
In the United States, Christians collectively make up the majority religious group, while minority groups such as Muslims and atheists are often looked upon with distrust.
Here is the religious makeup of the USA based on the Wall Street Journal-NORC Poll (2023):
Here’s how that looks in table format:
|Nothing in particular||12%|
Some minority religious groups who have been discriminated against in recent history include:
Muslims represent a significant minority group in Western nations like the USA and, especially post-9/11 were looked upon with significant suspicion. Similarly, president Donald Trump promised to overtly discriminate against Muslim-majority nations, banning them from travel to the USA, to benefit from widespread cultural mistrust of Muslims in the USA.
2. Jewish People
During WWII, the German dominant political class looked upon Jewish people with mistrust, perpetrating stereotypes about their secretiveness and jealousy of the group’s ability to build wealth. This led to attempted genocide, and to formation of the state of Israel to protect the Jewish people.
Following the Communist takeover of China and Mao’s subsequent cultural revolution, Buddhism was officially treated with suspicion (Poceski, 2012). It was seen as a threat to the dominance of the communist ideology. Similarly, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, there was an attempted genocide against Buddhists who were seen as insufficiently committed to communist ideology.
Cultural and Ethnic Minorities
Cultural and ethnic minorities represent cultural groups – immigrant or Indigenous – who are minority in a society and therefore capable of being dominated by the dominant culture.
Throughout history, there have been a range of cultural and ethnic groups discriminated against based on physical and cultural characteristics. Perhaps most obviously, the Indigenous peoples of the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have faced consistent persecution since European invasion.
In the USA, the current cultural and ethnic makeup is diverse (data based on the US Census):
In table format, it looks like this:
|Hispanic and Latino||18.9%|
|Two or more races||2.3%|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||0.7%|
|Some other race||0.5%|
|Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander||0.2%|
Below are some examples of cultural and ethnic minority groups.
4. Indigenous Peoples
Recent decades have witnessed a reckoning with the treatment of Indigenous peoples by the dominant culture, which has led to intergenerational disadvantage and marginalization. In Canada, for example, the crimes of the state and Church have been uncovered, demonstrating how children were taken from their families and put into residential schools where they were stripped of culture and, in many instances, murdered or killed through neglect. Mass graves are not being discovered around Canada as evidence of this persecution.
5. Irish Migrants
In the early years of settlement in Australia, the Irish were seen as a suspicious class by the British ruling class. The persecution, especially at the hands of the police, led to several revolts from the majority working-class Irish, who during the Gold Rush era also partnered with another minority group – the Chinese – to take a stand against the ruling British in a skirkish called the Eureka Stockade. In the centuries since, the Irish have by-and-large assimilated into the dominant culture.
6. African Americans
Even since 1885, African Americans have continued to face ongoing persecution, discrimination, and barriers in American life. During the Jim Crow era, this was in the form of institutional discrimination. Since, efforts have been made to address historical and intergenerational injustices through practices such as affirmative action; however, structurarl inequalities still exist.
7. Roma People in Europe
The Roma people, also known as Romani, have been marginalized in Europe for centuries. Originally migrating from Northern India around 1,500 years ago, they have faced severe persecution, discrimination, and exclusion throughout their history. This includes systematic efforts to eradicate their culture and population during WWII. Despite being Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the Roma people continue to suffer from high levels of poverty, lack of education, and unemployment.
8. Linguistic Minorities
Linguistic minorities, like the French-speaking Canadian community, have historically faced discrimination based on the inability to access public services and cultural stereotyping. In Canada, this has been addressed through a range of language protections, such as laws ensuring public services are provided in both English and French.
9. Dissidents in Authoritarian Regimes
In authoritarian countries, dissidents who oppose the ruling regime often constitute a political minority. These individuals or groups may face persecution, imprisonment, or even death for their political beliefs. Despite these risks, dissidents play a crucial role in resisting authoritarianism and advocating for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
10. Women in Politics
Although this is changing slowly, women remain underrepresented in political offices worldwide, making them a political minority in many places. Despite making up roughly half of the population, women hold about a quarter of parliamentary seats globally, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2021. Barriers to women’s political participation include societal attitudes, discriminatory laws and institutions, and violence against women in politics. Increasing women’s political representation is a key goal for achieving gender equality and better democratic governance.
11. Communists During the McCarthy Era
During the McCarthy era in the United States, roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, there was widespread fear and paranoia about the influence of communism. This period, also known as the Red Scare, was marked by aggressive investigations and persecution of people suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers. Left-leaning people, who may not have even been communists, were blacklisted, verbally attacked at public hearings, and often lost their jobs.
Gender and Sexually Diverse Minorities
12. Gender Diverse People
Gender diverse groups, including intersex and transgender people, are currently the victims of widespread moral panic based on prejudices and ignorance about their lifestyles and gender expression. This is often institutional, such as when trans people are denied gender affirming healthcare.
13. Gay and Lesbian People
Historrically, gay and lesbian people were extensively marginalized and discriminated against. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, this has somewhat subsided, with the passing of same-sex marriage laws and removal of legal discrimination occurring between 2010 and 2015 in most Western nations. However, they still constitute a minority who often face stereotypes and suspicion from others.
Disabled people, including people with cognitive and physical disabilities, represent about 12% of the American population.
Examples include people with autism, ADHD, cognitive and developmental delays, and mobility problems.
Below is a bar chart visualizing the CDC disability statistics:
Here’s that in table format:
|Disability Type||Percentage of Population|
|Independent living disability||7.2%|
Examples of disabled groups who may be considered minorities include:
14. People with Autism
Individuals with autism often face discrimination due to the societal misunderstanding and stigma associated with the spectrum of conditions it encompasses. The lack of awareness about the diversity within the autistic spectrum often leads to negative stereotypes and assumptions, which can result in discrimination in various aspects of life, including education, employment, healthcare, and social participation. People with autism are frequently underestimated in their abilities, leading to fewer opportunities and inclusion.
15. Deaf and Hearing Impaired
Deaf and hearing-impaired people commonly face social barriers due to society’s view that hearing and speaking as the standard forms of communication. This often results in the exclusion of deaf and hearing impaired people from various social, educational, and professional activities. Moreover, societal infrastructure is frequently not designed to accommodate the needs of deaf and hearing-impaired individuals, restricting their access to public spaces and services.
16. Blind and Vision Impaired
The blind and vision-impaired community also confronts social barriers stemming from the societal inability to create inclusive public spaces that ensure they are included in public life. Social, institutional, and architectural structures are often not built with accessibility in mind, causing difficulty in navigation, access to information, and independent living. These barriers contribute to high unemployment rates and limited educational opportunities, which furthers socioeconomic disparity.
Feagin’s Minority Group Characteristics
According to Feagin (1985), there are five characteristics of minority groups:
- They are the subject of discrimination and subordination from the dominant group: For example, Muslims might be seen with suspicion for their religious beliefs, and may therefore face difficulties in employment.
- They have physical or cultural traits that make them a distinct group: For example, Roma people often live on the road, often lacking a home address, which makes them distinctive.
- They share common burdens and a common struggle: From cultural to political to ethnic minorities, there are often common burdens faced by each group, such as barriers to full access in public life, employment barriers, and undue stereotypes.
- There is a clear social framework for understanding who belongs to the groups: This, generally, means that society has defined these groups as distinct groups – we know who is and is not situated within each group, which can lead to instant discrimination based on looks or identity status.
- They have a tendency to marry within the group: Known as endogamy, people in minority groups often end up marrying others in the group, primarily because they group together due to their shared challenges and ability to empathize with one another.
Minority groups are any number of groups of people in society – identifiable by common traits – who face discrimination for their differences from the dominant group, and often, the dominant culture. Membership of one or more minority groups (known as intersectionality) is a key indicator of barriers and disadvantages that can hider full public participation and lead to continual social marginalization.
Feagin, J. R. (1984). Racial and Ethnic Relations (2nd ed.). New York: Prentice-Hall.
Wirth, L. (1945). The Problem of Minority Groups. In Linton, Ralph (ed.). The Science of Man in the World Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press.
Poceski, M. (2012) Chinese Buddhism. in R. L. Nadeau (Ed.) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions (pp. 197-218). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]