Conceptualizing, Contextualizing, and Operationalizing Race in Quantitative Health Sciences Research

Ann Fam Med. 2022 Mar-Apr;20(2):157-163. doi: 10.1370/afm.2792. Epub 2022 Jan 19.


Differences in health outcomes across racial groups are among the most commonly reported findings in health disparities research. Often, these studies do not explicitly connect observed disparities to mechanisms of systemic racism that drive adverse health outcomes among racialized and other marginalized groups in the United States. Without this connection, investigators inadvertently support harmful narratives of biologic essentialism or cultural inferiority that pathologize racial identities and inhibit health equity. This paper outlines pitfalls in the conceptualization, contextualization, and operationalization of race in quantitative population health research and provides recommendations on how to appropriately engage in scientific inquiry aimed at understanding racial health inequities. Race should not be used as a measure of biologic difference, but rather as a proxy for exposure to systemic racism. Future studies should go beyond this proxy use and directly measure racism and its health impacts.VISUAL ABSTRACTAppeared as Annals "Online First" article.

Keywords: community/public health; disparity; epidemiology; inequity; intersectionality; race; racism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Health Equity*
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Population Health*
  • Racism*
  • Systemic Racism
  • United States