Race and Ethnicity in Research: Use, Limitations, Recommendations

By Sara V. Bernate Angulo, BS Student in Nutrition

In scientific research, broad demographic categorizations of individuals, such as sex and marital status, are used for data collection and interpretation. However, unlike sex and marital status, race and ethnicity are less objective variables. In this article, we define an ethnic group as a “social group categorized by distinctive social and cultural traditions.” The definition of race is much more complex, though we can start by first understanding that it is a social concept constructed for the purpose of classifying people and, second, by acknowledging that it is generally attributed to physical characteristics such as skin color. Historically, race has been erroneously attributed to biology and physiology and weaponized to oppress people of color and uphold systems of white power

Given the complexity of these terms, scientists find difficulty reaching a consensus on correct definitions and the best methods of measurement. This, in addition to their problematic history, leads one to wonder why these terms are still heavily used in the literature and, by extension, how their limited use can be addressed. In this article, we’ll discuss the current dialogue regarding race and ethnicity in scientific research, their inherent limitations, and current recommendations to address them.

Use of Race and Ethnicity in Research
Many researchers will argue that race and ethnicity as scientific variables:

  • Describe study populations
  • Establish selection criteria
  • Are needed to study the association between race and/or ethnicity and disease
  • Are possible confounders for other associations of interests
  • Identify disparities and thus allow for the creation and development of interventions that target specific groups

If race and ethnicity are social concepts, why use them at all? The answer lies in the fact that prejudice and discrimination against people of certain racial and ethnic groups have real-life consequences for millions of people worldwide. Thus, there is an emphasis in utilizing these variables to identify (and subsequently address) health disparities, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.”

Previous research studies have yielded significant results in this area, suggesting that there are some factors pertaining to race and/or ethnicity that influence disease risk. In his paper examining the scientific understanding of race, public health scientist D.R. Williams writes, “since racial categories have historically represented and continue to reflect the creation of social, economic, and political disadvantage that is consequential for well-being, it is important to continue to study racial differences in health.”

Limitations of Race and Ethnicity
The problems with using race and ethnicity as scientific variables include but are not limited to:

  • A lack of consistency as to their definition and use in scientific literature. A review on the use of the terms ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity,’ and ‘national origins’ in public health research articles found that the majority of studies using these terms did not provide clear and explicit definitions and methods of measurement. There are many ways to measure race – for example, through self-identification or racial assignment, the latter of which allows researchers the opportunity to exercise prejudice and bias. Additionally, racial and ethnic categories are not static, which results in studies that over time differ in their definition of race and ethnicity. The lack of consistency in how these terms are defined and assessed makes it difficult to compare results of aggregate data over time.
  • Overlooking complexities in race and ethnicity. Mixed race, multiethnic identities, and heterogeneity do not fit within one category. By focusing on broad categories and contrasting between them, the intricacies and individuality of human identity and experience are diminished and may serve to alienate and ‘other’ groups of people from a perceived normative state.
  • Underemphasis of intersectionality and determinants of health. Race and ethnicity are not the only factors that make up identity. To consider only these two factors in association to a variable of interest ignores the impact of other determinants of health, such as institutional racism, living and working conditions, and social resources.

Addressing Limitations
The first step is to acknowledge and participate in this dialogue. Next, scientists make the following recommendations:

  • Reject and speak out against the belief that racial categories alone explain biological or physiological processes. In other terms, be wary and reject the use of race as a genetic/biologic variable without considering how other social variables interact with race.
  • Explicitly state how these terms are defined and assessed in order to maintain consistency and improve interpretation of and comparison between data. 
  • Consider assessing race and ethnicity on a quantitative instead of a categorical scale. Questions should allow for self-identification and descriptive expansion of identified classifications.
  • In addition to race and ethnicity, consider social determinants of health.
  • Work actively to identify and address the ways in which we, as people first and researchers second, perpetuate and promote certain stereotypes both personally and within scientific research.
  • Carefully consider wording. Depersonalizing, dehumanizing, and stigmatizing language, especially in a profession considered to be objective, has detrimental consequences for individuals and society as a whole.

As readers of the latest nutrition research, understanding the concepts of race and ethnicity and identifying their use within research is essential to our work and the health of our field. By doing this, we improve our scientific literacy and hold our field accountable to realize the complexities of this issue and commit to objective practices and anti-discriminatory efforts.

Peer-edited by Gabrielle Dardis, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry

Picture credit: Pixy

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