Conceptualizing race in research

J Natl Med Assoc. 2008 Oct;100(10):1235-43. doi: 10.1016/s0027-9684(15)31470-x.


Background: The use of race as a variable in research continues to spark debate about whether it should be used, as well as the implications it has for research on health differences. Given this continued controversy, we examined how investigators interpret the concept of "race" and whether their views of race are reflected in their published work.

Methods: Thirty-three semistructured interviews were conducted with investigators from 3 southeastern universities to discuss recruitment of participants, the use of race as a variable in research and analyses, and their assessment of the National Institutes of Health mandate on the inclusion of women and minorities. The interview data were analyzed using the principles of constant comparative method, theme identification and pattern investigation. Up to 2 publications for each respondent were also used to assess the use of race in their research.

Results: Results reflect a spectrum of views on the definition of race, from biological to social. Findings also suggest that investigators think critically about the use and implications of using race in their research, although this is not consistently reflected in their published work.

Conclusion: In our view, authors, journal editors and peer reviewers have an important role in moving this debate forward, and advocate that they engage more directly in shaping the process. When reporting results by race, investigators should provide a statement on the theory or conceptual framework underlying the hypothesized racial differences in health examined in the study. They should be also cautious in invoking either biological or social constructions of race, thus demonstrating an appreciation of the nuances and implications of using this variable.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Data Collection
  • Humans
  • Racial Groups*
  • Research Design*