To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

Power asymmetry between minority and majority


In this article, Lisa Olesen from KVINFO’s Mentor Network Odense division examines some key definitions of the concept of ‘minority’ which can be useful when discussing the relationship between majority and minority.

What is a minority?
It has taken 50 years of discussion at the UN to finally establish a set of minority rights – without in fact reaching an agreement on a clear definition of what a ‘minority’ actually is.

The premise for studying the relationship between minority and majority is not a study of one confined group but rather a study of a very diffuse concept. Depending on the approach, the concept of majority can span from ethnic affiliation to groups with the same sexual preference.

Differing approaches to defining a minority
Different research approaches have adopted different stances when it comes to defining just what a minority is. The following four courses of research provide a useful overview of the different approaches to minority/majority relations:

1. Defining a minority based on numerical percentages
For some, the word ‘minority’ referrers to its literal meaning for any segment of the total population which makes up a smaller proportion than the majority. In line with this, the quantitative approach to minority studies focuses the concept of minority as a purely numerical calculation.

Adopting this approach, a minority can therefore be defined by a number or percentage. The problem with such a definition is that it is not possible to use numerical data to accurately reflect the actual power balance showing who really holds the power in a society or other relationship. The ruling whites in South Africa under apartheid were a numerical minority, yet they held a dominant position of power in relation to the larger number of blacks.

This number-based approach does, however, shed light on a problem which is to a large extent associated with numerical majorities – namely democracy. The concept of democracy is to promote the desires of the numerical majority which, in practice, means that many minorities are dependent on the governing power’s willingness to promote and speak out for their rights.

2. The legal definition of minority
Legal differentiation between minorities is very difficult as a set definition of the concept does not exist. As a result, it is almost impossible to legally say who is and who is not part of a minority group.

In existing legislation covering minority rights, migrants who do not have legal citizenship in the country in which they reside, for example, are not covered – this often includes indigenous populations within a country. In Denmark, there is only one legally recognised minority – the German minority. From a legislative perspective, no other minority groups are covered by law.

Problems stemming from the lack of a clear definition of ‘minority’ really come to light here. Because of inadequate legislation recognising the rights of minority groups, it becomes easy to overlook problems these groups may face within a society.

3. Social and ethnic aspects – the ethnological definition
A study of minorities usually links together the social and ethnical aspects of ethnic minorities. Norwegian anthropologist Frederik Barth breaks with this idea in his work Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Here he presents a relational concept of ethnicity in which the boundaries between different ethnic groups are primarily viewed as social and not cultural.

The interaction of groups with each other is primarily used to underline the borders separating ‘us’ and ‘them’. These borders are seen in specific contexts and not objective in themselves. There are many different groups but the significance attached to these is not always clear.

For example, in the discussion of Muslim women’s wearing of headscarves in Denmark it is not the headscarf in itself which makes the difference – it is the significance of what is symbolised with the wearing of a headscarf. The question is whether or not we can challenge the symbolic significances.

4. The majority sets the agenda – a relational definition
Very much in line with Barth’s ethnological definition of minorities is a relational definition of the concept. In this definition, highly influenced by French philosopher Michael Foucaults, a minority is viewed as being in an asymmetrical relation to the majority.

Head of Minority Studies at the University of Copenhagen, Helen Krag, describes minorities in her book Diversity, Power and Minority as “(…) a group which does not possess the power to decide what is normal.”

According to this approach, the majority owns a “norm monopoly” which determines the opportunity for expression of both the minorities and of the rest of a society. The majority sets the agenda for what is right and what is wrong at any given time. When dealing with a mentor/mentee relationship where the parties come from different countries, this is a good approach to take in relation to the power asymmetry between minority and majority.

The definitions examined here have been compiled with inspiration from Helen Krag’s book on "Diversity, Power and Minority", available in Danish: Mangfoldighed, magt og minoriteter. Introduktion til minoritetsforskningens teorier, Forlaget Samfundslitteratur, 2007.


Read more
Background, case stories and more in KVINFO's
Theme: Mentoring


Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: