Despite the widespread use of ecologic analysis in epidemiologic research and health planning, little attention has been given by health scientists and practitioners to the methodological aspects of this approach. This paper reviews the major types of ecologic study designs, the analytic methods appropriate for each, the limitations of ecologic data for making causal inferences and what can be done to minimize these problems, and the relative advantages of ecologic analysis. Numerous examples are provided to illustrate the important principles and methods. A careful distinction is made between ecologic studies that generate or test etiologic hypotheses and those that evaluate the impact of intervention programs or policies (given adequate knowledge of disease etiology). Failure to recognize this difference in the conduct of ecologic studies can lead to results that are not very informative or that are misinterpreted by others.