A subordinated group consists of people who have less power, status, and privilege than the dominant group in a society; they often face discrimination and systemic barriers.
A subordinated group, also known as a minority group, is at a relative disadvantage as compared to the dominant group. The term “minority”, however, should not make one believe that the group is characterized by less number of individuals.
Instead, minority refers to their minor status in the hierarchical power structure of society. Often, a group may be demographically large and still be a “minority”. For example, during Apartheid in South Africa, Black Africans outnumbered Europeans but hardly possessed any power.
Definition of Subordinated Groups
Louis Wirth defines subordinated/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” (1945)
Wirth’s definition includes both objective and subjective criteria. An individual, based on his (objective) physical and behavioral characteristics, is assigned membership to a group; the members also (subjectively) see themselves as a discriminated group and build solidarity.
Joe Feagin points out that a subordinated group is characterized by five elements (1984):
- They face discrimination and subordination.
- Their distinctive physical/cultural traits are disapproved of by the dominant group.
- There are socially shared rules about who does and does not belong in a group.
- Subordinated group members share a sense of common identity and burden.
- There is a high rate of in-group marriage among subordinated members.
Subordinated group members not only face discrimination on an individual level (say racist remarks or denial of particular service) but are also challenged by systemic barriers.
These are embedded in the systems, written/unwritten policies, and practices of various institutions; for example, workplace discrimination, residential segregation, etc. An individual may also hold membership in various minority groups.
Intersectionality gives us a framework to analyze how these various social and political identities combine to create different kinds of discrimination and privilege. For example, a Black working-class woman faces disadvantages at three levels: racial, gender, and economic status.
Examples of Subordinated Groups
- Racial and ethnic minorities: Throughout history, most societies have had high social dominance orientation and consequently discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities. Quite often, these groups are “involuntary minorities”, meaning that they were initially brought into a society against their will (Ogbu, 2015), such as African Americans, Native Americans, etc. In the United States, African natives were forcibly brought and exploited as slaves. Then there was a long history of systemic discrimination, including segregation, exclusion from power, and unequal treatment under the law. The remnants of such discrimination still exist today: African Americans experience greater poverty and unemployment than Whites.
- Religious minorities: Religious minorities have historically been subjected to discrimination, exclusion from equal resources, and unequal treatment by the law. The oppression of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar is one of the most recent examples. The Myanmar government has denied them citizenship and subjected them to arbitrary arrests and killings. In 2017, there was a brutal military crackdown on the minority, causing the death and displacement of many. In other societies, discrimination is less blatant. For example, in India, Muslims have unequal access to resources and therefore have lower levels of educational attainment than the Hindu majority.
- LGBTQ+ Groups: LGBTQ+ people are both a numerical and a sociological minority in the world. In many countries, homosexuality is criminalized, and LGBTQ+ can face imprisonment or even death in extreme cases. Even in countries where homosexuality is legal, there are many restrictions on adoption, marriage, etc. Besides these, LGBTQ+ people also experience discrimination in their daily life, such as being denied employment opportunities, facing violence, etc. Because of such discrimination, LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk of facing mental health problems.
- People with disabilities: Disabled people are disadvantaged not only by their impairments but also by society. One of the most significant issues they face is the lack of accessibility in public spaces and transportation. There are not sufficient wheelchair ramps, Braille signage, and audio descriptions to assist them. Disabled people also face limited access to education and employment, due to a lack of accommodations as well as the stigma surrounding disability.
- Refugees and Immigrants: Refugees and immigrants face incredible challenges in finding safety and opportunities in new countries. During the Second World War, for example, millions of Jewish citizens escaped Germany but were denied entry into many countries (including the United States & Canada) due to anti-Semitic attitudes and policies. In recent times, Syrian refugees have been facing difficulties in seeking asylum. Immigrants also face many challenges in assimilating, such as xenophobic attitudes, harsh deportation policies, and limited access to healthcare and education.
- Linguistic Minorities: Linguistic minorities are groups of people who speak a language different from the majority in a particular geographic area. In the United Kingdom, Welsh was historically suppressed and not used in school/official settings, leading to the decline in the number of Welsh speakers. In India, 22 languages are officially recognized by the government, but in reality, speakers of many languages face discrimination. For example, Hindi is often imposed on the entire country, including the Southern region where it is not the native language.
- Girls and women: In most societies, the number of men and women are roughly equal, but women have always faced inequalities and discrimination. Historically, women were denied many human rights, such as the right to own property and vote. They were typically expected to be homemakers instead of focusing on their education or career advancement. The feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries challenged these inequalities, but there is still a long way to go. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, subjected to physical violence, and underrepresented in positions of power.
- Poor and working-class people: Poor and working-class people face difficulties in accessing education, healthcare, and other basic amenities due to economic barriers. They also have limited opportunities for career advancement and political participation. Historically, working-class people have been exploited by the upper classes; during the early days of industrialization, workers had to work for long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages. As of 2018, the global poverty rate (US $1.90 poverty line) is 8.6%, while the world’s richest 1% owns about half of the world’s wealth.
- Elderly people: Some subordinate groups lack power not because of their skin color or their color of origin; instead, their diminished status comes from widespread prejudice. For example, elderly people face discrimination everywhere. 10% of nursing home staff admitted to physically abusing an elderly person while 40% confessed to psychological abuse (WHO, 2011). Elderly people face higher unemployment rates and are also paid less than their younger counterparts (especially in the case of women).
- Indigenous peoples: Throughout history, indigenous people have faced oppression, displacement, and erasure of their cultures. Around the world, indigenous communities are often forcibly removed from their indigenous land for the exploitation of resources. In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest has been getting damaged by illegal logging and mining, leading to deforestation and the destruction of communities. Indigenous people also face barriers in accessing basic amenities (education, healthcare, etc.) and are severely underrepresented in politics (like the Native Americans in the US).
Uplifting Subordinated Groups
Subordinated groups can be uplifted through affirmative action, promoting inclusion, and spreading education.
Affirmative action seeks to address past and present discrimination by providing preferential treatment to members of subordinated groups (Fryer and Loury, 2020). This helps increase their representation in various fields, such as education, workplace, politics, etc.
Organizations can implement policies and practices that promote inclusion. These can include targeted recruitment efforts, diversity training, etc. In fact, companies with more diverse workforces are seen to outperform those with less diverse ones (McKinsey and Company, 2020).
The government can also invest in education, healthcare, and economic opportunities to help subordinated groups gain access to quality resources. Finally, on an individual level, we can educate ourselves, listen to subordinated groups, and use our privilege to help them.
Subordinated or minority groups are groups of people who hold less power in a society as compared to the dominant group.
Their distinctive physical/cultural traits set them apart and make them vulnerable to discrimination. Besides individual prejudice, they must also face systemic barriers in all fields of life (education, workplace, housing, etc.).
Intersectionality allows us to understand how an individual may belong to multiple minority groups and face greater difficulties. Finally, various practices like affirmative action can help uplift subordinated groups.
Feagin, Joe R. (1984). Racial and Ethnic Relations (2nd ed.). Prentice-Hall.
Fryer, R. G., and Loury, G. C. (2020). “Affirmative action and its alternatives in a post-affirmative action world”. Journal of Economic Perspectives. American Economic Association.
McKinsey and Company. (2020). Diversity wins: How inclusion matters. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters
Ogbu, John U. “Understanding Cultural Diversity and Learning” (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 October 2015.
Wirth, L. (1945). “The Problem of Minority Groups”. In Linton, Ralph (ed.). The Science of Man in the World Crisis. Columbia University Press.