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affirmative action

Definition of Affirmative Action

(noun) The act or practice of giving preferential treatment (e.g., education or employment opportunities) to underrepresented groups such as the disabled, the elderly, ethnic minorities, and women who have experienced discrimination in the past.

Example of Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification: af·fir·ma·tive ac·tion

Audio Pronunciation

– American English
– British English

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /uh-fUHR-muh-tiv Ak-shuhn/
  • British English – /uh-fUHR-muh-tiv Ak-shuhn/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /əˈfɜrmətɪv ˈækʃən/
  • British English – /əˈfɜːmətɪv ˈækʃ(ə)n/

Usage Notes

  • Plural: affirmative actions
  • Affirmative action as a term began when John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) signed Executive Order 10925 on March 6th, 1961, that mandated “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Women were not afforded these same protections until Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) signed Executive Order 11375 on October 13, 1967. It is important to note that these two laws only affected the federal workforce and government contracts, not the entire working public.

Related Quotations

  • “Affirmative action, a heavily contested program for change, is a race-specific policy for reducing job and educational inequality that has had some limited success. Affirmative action means two things. First, it means recruiting minorities from a wide base in order to ensure consideration of groups that have been traditionally overlooked, while not using rigid quotas based on race or ethnicity. Second, affirmative action means using admissions slots (in education) or set aside contracts or jobs (in job hiring) to assure minority representation” (Andersen and Taylor 2011:258).
  • “Defenders of affirmative action see it, first, as a sensible response to our nation’s racial and ethnic history, especially for African Americans, who suffered through two centuries of slavery and a century of segregation under Jim Crow laws. Throughout our history, they claim, being white gave people a big advantage. They see minority preference today as a step toward fair compensation for unfair majority preference in the past” (Macionis 2012:341).
  • “In essence, legacy admissions operate as essentially a nonmerit affirmative action program for the already privileged” (McNamee and Miller 2013:115).
  • “Some bureaucracies perpetuate inequalities of race, class, and gender because this form of organizational structure creates a specific type of work or learning environment. This structure was typically created for middle- and upper-middle-class white men, who for many years were the predominant organizational participants” (Kendall 2011:194).
  • “The rationale for affirmative action policies in the USA includes the presumptive positive effects of diversity on intergroup relations as well as the issue of equity of opportunity for minority group members. Highly diverse settings, by virtue of including people with a wide variety of characteristics, can also result in a more equitable representation of opinions and sharing of resources” (Stevens 2011:154).

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Additional Information

Related Terms


Andersen, Margaret L., and Howard Francis Taylor. 2011. Sociology: The Essentials. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

Kendall, Diana. 2011. Sociology in Our Times. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Macionis, John. 2012. Sociology. 14th ed. Boston: Pearson.

McNamee, Stephen J., and Robert K. Miller, Jr. 2013. The Meritocracy Myth. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Stevens, Gillian. 2011. “diversity.” Pp. 154 in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by G. Ritzer and J. Ryan. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Works Consulted

Andersen, Margaret L., and Howard Francis Taylor. 2011. Sociology: The Essentials. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Brym, Robert J., and John Lie. 2007. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Dillon, Michele. 2014. Introduction to Sociological Theory: Theorists, Concepts, and their Applicability to the Twenty-First Century. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ferris, Kerry, and Jill Stein. 2010. The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Hughes, Michael, and Carolyn J. Kroehler. 2011. Sociology: The Core. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jary, David, and Julia Jary. 2000. Collins Dictionary of Sociology. 3rd ed. Glasgow, Scotland: HarperCollins.

Kendall, Diana. 2011. Sociology in Our Times. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Kimmel, Michael S., and Amy Aronson. 2012. Sociology Now. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Macmillan. (N.d.) Macmillan Dictionary. (https://www.macmillandictionary.com/).

Schaefer, Richard. 2013. Sociology: A Brief Introduction. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turner, Bryan S., ed. 2006. The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wikipedia contributors. (N.d.) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/).

Cite the Definition of Affirmative Action

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “affirmative action.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Retrieved June 18, 2024 (https://sociologydictionary.org/affirmative-action/).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

affirmative action. (2013). In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary. Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/affirmative-action/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “affirmative action.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Accessed June 18, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/affirmative-action/.

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

“affirmative action.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Ed. Kenton Bell. 2013. Web. 18 Jun. 2024. <https://sociologydictionary.org/affirmative-action/>.