Race Categorization and the Regulation of Business and Science


  • The authors would like to thank Steve Epstein, Andrew Lakoff, Tom Medvetz, Ann Morning, Alondra Nelson, Wendy Roth, participants in the 2008 “Paradoxes of Race, Law and Inequality in the United States” conference, the anonymous reviewers, and editor Carroll Seron for their helpful comments. Lee was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Scholars in Health Policy Research Program and the Rutgers University Institute for Research on Women for research and writing of this article. Please address correspondence to Catherine Lee, Department of Sociology, Rutgers University, Davison Hall, 26 Nichol Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; e-mail: clee@sociology.rutgers.edu.


Despite the lack of consensus regarding the meaning or significance of race or ethnicity amongst scientists and the lay public, there are legal requirements and guidelines that dictate the collection of racial and ethnic data across a range of institutions. Legal regulations are typically created through a political process and then face varying kinds of resistance when the state tries to implement them. We explore the nature of this opposition by comparing responses from businesses, scientists, and science-oriented businesses (pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies) to U.S. state regulations that used politically derived racial categorizations, originally created to pursue civil rights goals. We argue that insights from cultural sociology regarding institutional and cultural boundaries can aid understanding of the nature of resistance to regulation. The Food and Drug Administration's guidelines for research by pharmaceutical companies imposed race categories on science-based businesses, leading to objections that emphasized the autonomy and validity of science. In contrast, similar race categories regulating first business by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and later scientific research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) encountered little challenge. We argue that pharmaceutical companies had the motive (profit) that NIH-supported scientists lacked and a legitimate discourse (boundary work of science) that businesses regulated by the EEOC did not have. The study suggests the utility of a comparative cultural sociology of the politics of legal regulation, particularly when understanding race-related regulation and the importance of examining legal regulations for exploring how the meaning of race or ethnicity are contested and constructed in law.