After graduating from the London School of Economics in 1950, Banton conducted research on the settlement of New Commonwealth immigrants in the East End of London for which he received the degree of PhD from the University of Edinburgh. He subsequently wrote books about the settlement of rural immigrants in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and on the behaviour of the white British towards New Commonwealth immigrants. His book The Policeman in the Community, a comparative study of policing in Scotland and the USA, was the first book-length sociological study of the police.
Banton became best known for his book Race Relations (1967), which summarised contemporary social science knowledge of that field. This phase of his writing concluded with a volume, The Idea of Race, in which he introduced into the English language the concept of racialization as a process by which the idea of race as a physical category was socially utilized to organise perceptions of the populations of the world. Up to this point his work reflected sociological orthodoxy.
Starting in 1976, Banton’s criticisms of that orthodoxy strengthened. In Racial and Ethnic Competition (1983) he advanced a rational choice theory. The book ended with a discussion of what constituted `good’ racial relations; it concluded that good racial relations would be ethnic relations. He has been critical of accounts of majority-minority relations in Europe that interpret them in the light of conceptions conventional in the USA.
Recalling Max Weber’s statement that he became a sociologist `in order to put an end to the mischievous enterprise which still operates with collectivist concepts’ Banton has observed that `ethnic group’ is a collectivist concept. There are ethnic categories and those who are assigned to an ethnic category may come to form a group, but do necessarily do so. From this starting point he has developed a theory of social categories.
Whereas Banton has been much concerned with the improvement of concepts and theories in this field, he has also written on measures for the reduction of racial discrimination. He served as an elected member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination from 1986 to 2001 and as its chairman for 1996-98.
He was Lecturer, and subsequently Reader, in Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh, 1954—65, and professor of Sociology, University of Bristol, 1965-92.He was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 1987-89, and President of the Sociology section, (1970—71) and the Anthropology section, (1985—86) within the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He was President of the Ethnic, Race and Minority Relations section of the International Sociological Association 1990-94, and Director of the Social Science Research Council Research Unit on Ethnic Relations, 1970-78. He was editor of Sociology, 1966-70.
`Decision-taking in the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’ pp 55—78 in Philip Alston & James Crawford, editors, The Future of UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring. 2000 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
`Historical and Contemporary Modes of Racialization’ pp. 51—68 in Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by Karim Murji and John Solomos. 2005 Oxford: Oxford University Press.
`Finding, and correcting, my mistakes’, Sociology, 2005 39(3):463-79.
`Three Current Issues in Ethnic and Racial Studies’, British Journal of Sociology, 2005 56(4):621-633.
`Max Weber on `Ethnic Communities’: a critique’, Nations and Nationalism, 2007 13(1):1-17.
`Problem-Finding in Ethnic and Racial Studies’ in Advancing Multiculturalism, Post 7/7, edited by John Eade, Martyn Barrett, Chris Floud and Richard Race, 2008
`The Sociology of Ethnic Relations’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2008 31(7):1267-1285.
In Racial Theories Michael Banton presents a broad historical and typological overview of academic theories of race (he doesn't cover popular conceptions). He also touches on topics such as ethnicity and discrimination, and suggests his own ideas. The overall result is perhaps a little unfocused: the typological classification scheme seems artificial in places and some odd topics receive detailed attention (presumably reflecting Banton's own special interests). But anyone interested in the subject will find plenty in Racial Theories.