Conceptualization, Operationalization, and Utilization of Race and Ethnicity in Major Epidemiology Journals, 1995-2018: A Systematic Review

Am J Epidemiol. 2023 Feb 24;192(3):483-496. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwac146.


Despite repeated calls by scholars to critically engage with the concepts of race and ethnicity in US epidemiologic research, the incorporation of these social constructs in scholarship may be suboptimal. This study characterizes the conceptualization, operationalization, and utilization of race and ethnicity in US research published in leading journals whose publications shape discourse and norms around race, ethnicity, and health within the field of epidemiology. We systematically reviewed randomly selected articles from prominent epidemiology journals across 5 periods: 1995-1999, 2000-2004, 2005-2009, 2010-2014, and 2015-2018. All original human-subjects research conducted in the United States was eligible for review. Information on definitions, measurement, coding, and use in analysis was extracted. We reviewed 1,050 articles, including 414 (39%) in our analyses. Four studies explicitly defined race and/or ethnicity. Authors rarely made clear delineations between race and ethnicity, often adopting an ethnoracial construct. In the majority of studies across time periods, authors did not state how race and/or ethnicity was measured. Top coding schemes included "Black, White" (race), "Hispanic, non-Hispanic" (ethnicity), and "Black, White, Hispanic" (ethnoracial). Most often, race and ethnicity were deemed "not of interest" in analyses (e.g., control variables). Broadly, disciplinary practices have remained largely the same between 1995 and 2018 and are in need of improvement.

Keywords: ethnicity; health equity; race; scientific communication; systematic reviews.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Concept Formation
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Ethnicity*
  • Humans
  • Periodicals as Topic*
  • Racial Groups*
  • United States