Mapping Race: Critical Approaches to Health Disparities Research

Mapping Race: Critical Approaches to Health Disparities Research

Mapping Race: Critical Approaches to Health Disparities Research

Mapping Race: Critical Approaches to Health Disparities Research


Researchers commonly ask subjects to self-identify their race from a menu of preestablished options. Yet if race is a multidimensional, multilevel social construction, this has profound methodological implications for the sciences and social sciences. Race must inform how we design large-scale data collection and how scientists utilize race in the context of specific research questions. This landmark collection argues for the recognition of those implications for research and suggests ways in which they may be integrated into future scientific endeavors. It concludes on a prescriptive note, providing an arsenal of multidisciplinary, conceptual, and methodological tools for studying race specifically within the context of health inequalities.

Contributors: John A. Garcia, Arline T. Geronimus, Laura E. Gómez, Joseph L. Graves Jr., Janet E. Helms, Derek Kenji Iwamoto, Jonathan Kahn, Jay S. Kaufman, Mai M. Kindaichi, Simon J. Craddock Lee, Nancy López, Ethan H. Mereish, Matthew Miller, Gabriel R. Sanchez, Aliya Saperstein, R. Burciaga Valdez, Vicki D. Ybarra


In 2008, the National Institutes of Health hosted over five thousand scholars at its first Science of Eliminating Health Disparities Summit. the subsequent annual summits were designed to encourage integration of science, practice, and policy to build a healthier society. As the opening plenary keynote speaker for the first one, I was asked to address “Health Disparities and the Intersection of Science and Policy.” I deliberately anchored my talk in an explanation of health disparities as a reflection of social stratification and inequitable resource allocations along “racial” and “ethnic” lines. But what do we mean by “racial” and “ethnic” lines?

The scholars in this volume challenge us to be more precise about how we define and operationalize this type of stratification. Why? Because individuals are born into our society that neither treats people nor distributes opportunity equally. We observe discrimination, poverty, and other forms of oppression play out at the community level affecting overall community environment and opportunities. Especially in resource-poor communities, the stresses of daily life bear down on the minds and bodies of residents, inviting illness through environmental exposures and other types of stress that are expressed biologically in what we recognize as disease.

While Congress has required documenting these “racial” and “ethnic” disparities annually by the Agency for Health Research and Quality, it has done little to remedy the situation. Over the last few years, private philanthropies, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California Endowment, have recognized the need to prevent disparities by addressing the inequities in our society as well as addressing health care disparities—creating a more just society and thus a more healthy nation.

Interdisciplinary research plays an increasingly important role in addressing highly complex social issues such as health disparities. It allows scholars to reach beyond the boundaries of their own disciplines and to adapt or develop new methods of analysis. Institutional policies that support integrating the social and biological sciences could represent the twenty-first-century breakthrough similar to what we experienced in the twentieth century when biological and chemical scientists developed the fields of biochemistry, molecular biology, and molecular genetics that led to the sequencing of the human genome. Supporting interdisciplinary health and social science investigations . . .

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