Racial groupings may correspond with patterns of social stratification, helping social scientists to understand the underlying disparities among racially defined groups of people. Additionally, law enforcement utilizes race to create profiles of wanted suspects in an expeditious manner.
While scientists use the concept of race to make practical distinctions among fuzzy sets of traits, the scientific community feels that the idea of race is often used by the general public in a naïve or simplistic way, erroneously designating wholly discrete types of individuals. Among humans, race has no cladistic significance—all people belong to the same hominid subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. Regardless of the extent to which race exists, the word "race" is problematic and may carry negative connotations. Social conceptions and groupings of races vary over time, involving folk taxonomies that define essential types of individuals based on perceived sets of traits. Scientists consider biological essentialism obsolete, and generally discourage racial explanations for collective differentiation in both physical and behavioral traits.
As people define and disseminate different conceptions of race, they actively create contrasting social realities through which racial categorization is achieved in varied ways. In this sense, races are said to be social constructs. These constructs can develop within various legal, economic, and sociopolitical contexts, and at times may be the effect, rather than the cause, of major social situations.
In biology the term "race" is used with caution because it can be ambiguous, "'Race' is not being defined or used consistently; its referents are varied and shift depending on context. The term is often used colloquially to refer to a range of human groupings. Religious, cultural, social, national, ethnic, linguistic, genetic, geographical and anatomical groups have been and sometimes still are called 'races'". Generally when it is used it is synonymous with subspecies. One main obstacle to identifying subspecies is that, while it is a recognised taxonomic term, it has no precise definition.
Most modern anthropologists and biologists came to view race as an invalid genetic or biological designation.
The first to challenge the concept of race on empirical grounds were anthropologists Franz Boas, who demonstrated phenotypic plasticity due to environmental factors, and Ashley Montagu who relied on evidence from genetics. E. O. Wilson then challenged the concept from the perspective of general animal systematics, and further rejected the claim that "races" were equivalent to "subspecies".
One result of debates over the meaning and validity of the concept of race is that the current literature across different disciplines regarding human variation lacks consensus, though within some fields, such as biology, there is strong consensus.