ISSJ - N° 183 - Affirmative Action

March 2005

Editorial advisers: Patrick Simon and Daniel Sabbagh

Action against racism and discrimination is central to contemporary perspectives on human rights and social justice. Yet while policy makes extensive use of vocabulary and even of concepts derived from social science, considerable uncertainty remains among specialists about the basis, implications and practical effects of policy measures that have become routine. From this perspective, affirmative action is of central significance. It appears to be a matter of straightforward common sense that specific remedial measures should be targeted at the victims of discrimination. In fact, a comparative analytical perspective shows how complex are the issues at stake and how simplistic or even misleading common sense can be. As the five articles in the section on “Measuring discrimination” show, identifying victims is hugely complex and calls on sophisticated statistics for which the social science basis is elusive to say the least.

Five further articles shed light on the rich and complex historical, legal, political and institutional construction of what, for contemporary purposes, “race” and “ethnicity” actually mean in the exemplary case of the United States, and other contributions consider France, India and Nigeria. The point where the perspectives provided by the various authors intersect with the statistical issues raised by the measurement of discrimination is, precisely, the historical depth of the social dynamics that affirmative action schemes are designed to address. Ideally, these might be regarded as erasing historical cleavages, especially when designed to compensate for them. In fact, they tend rather to reveal the shifting, but persistent, contemporary cleavages that cluster around historical patterns of development.

Back to top