Theories of discrimination

Whether you’re new to research on (ethnic) discrimination or have a couple of studies under your belt, you could do worse than reading Lauren Rivera‘s review article on employer decision-making.

While I’m not entirely convinced about the ostensible lack of studies on employers, the review really shines on summarizing different reasons for discrimination. Oddly enough, most of the article s I come across seem to highlight the distinction between taste-based discrimination and statistical discrimination (yes, our meta-analysis included), and largely neglect other theories. Lauren Rivera solves this by zooming out and drawing a distinction between competency-based, status-based, and social closure–based approaches. Much of the literature focuses on competency-based arguments, in which employers are almost absent other than picking the ‘best fit’ or the ‘most competent’.

In the review, Lauren Rivera highlights important differences within these three broad categories. For instance, within competency-based approaches, we have:

  • human capital theory — disparities are the result of skills and educational mismatches
  • signalling theory — disparities stem from not using the right signals of competence
  • social capital — disparities because workers do not have the same networks and ties to organizations that are valued by the companies
  • statistical discrimination — perceptions or actual average group performance is taken as a proxy, leading to disparities

We also have status-based approaches where disparities are the result of implicit or explicit views of the characteristics of groups, like warmth or ‘worth’. I guess we could speak of stereotypes here, but perhaps this is not helpful. Whatever we call these perceptions, they act as filters that disadvantage groups with low status. In this context, I missed a clearer position on the fact that some descriptions of ‘statistical discrimination’ in the literature are rather inaccurate.

There are also theories drawing on social closure. These include the ‘taste-based’ (overt or covert) dislike of minority groups. While this theory is very often invoked in publications, I have not come across many contributions that make explicit the link to social closure. This link is useful, because it allows us to see other approaches drawing on opportunity hoarding and preservation (these arguments seem more common in the literature on anti-minority attitudes than on discrimination): the desire to keep existing privileges and resources for the in-group, so employers exclude members of minority groups.

I liked the part on emotions, and decisions by ‘similarity’ in the review, but missed a more explicit link to the comparison of theories in table 1.

Rivera, Lauren A. 2020. ‘Employer Decision Making’. Annual Review of Sociology 46 (1): 215–32.

Zschirnt, Eva, and Didier Ruedin. 2016. ‘Ethnic Discrimination in Hiring Decisions: A Meta-Analysis of Correspondence Tests 1990–2015’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42 (7): 1115–34.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.