Race and health: basic questions, emerging directions

Ann Epidemiol. 1997 Jul;7(5):322-33. doi: 10.1016/s1047-2797(97)00051-3.


Purpose: This paper examines the scientific consensus on the conceptualization of race, identifies why health researchers should analyze racial differences in morbidity and mortality and provides guidelines for future health research that includes race.

Methods: Examines scientific dictionaries and reviews the social science, public health and medical literature on the role of race in health.

Results: First, this paper reviews the evidence suggesting that race is more of a social category than a biological one. Variation in genotypic characteristics exists, but race does not capture it. Second, since racial categories have historically represented and continue to reflect the creation of social, economic, and political disadvantage that is consequential for well-being, it is important to continue to study racial differences in health. Finally, the paper outlines directions for a more deliberate and thoughtful examination of the role of race in health.

Conclusions: Race is typically used in a mechanical and uncritical manner as a proxy for unmeasured biological, socioeconomic, and/or sociocultural factors. Future research should explore how clearly delineated environmental demands combine with genetic susceptibilities as well as with specified behavioral and physiological responses to increase the risk of illness for groups differentially exposed to psychosocial adversity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Culture
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Population Surveillance / methods
  • Prejudice
  • Racial Groups* / classification
  • Research Design*
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Class
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States / epidemiology