Ecologic studies in epidemiology: concepts, principles, and methods

Annu Rev Public Health. 1995:16:61-81. doi: 10.1146/annurev.pu.16.050195.000425.


An ecologic study focuses on the comparison of groups, rather than individuals; thus, individual-level data are missing on the joint distribution of variables within groups. Variables in an ecologic analysis may be aggregate measures, environmental measures, or global measures. The purpose of an ecologic analysis may be to make biologic inferences about effects on individual risks or to make ecologic inferences about effects on group rates. Ecologic study designs may be classified on two dimensions: (a) whether the primary group is measured (exploratory vs analytic study); and (b) whether subjects are grouped by place (multiple-group study), by time (time-trend study), or by place and time (mixed study). Despite several practical advantages of ecologic studies, there are many methodologic problems that severely limit causal inference, including ecologic and cross-level bias, problems of confounder control, within-group misclassification, lack of adequate data, temporal ambiguity, collinearity, and migration across groups.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Ecology*
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Epidemiologic Factors
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Humans
  • Research Design