Health and Social Research in Multi-Ethnic Societies

By Reid, Elizabeth | Health Sociology Review, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Health and Social Research in Multi-Ethnic Societies


Reid, Elizabeth, Health Sociology Review


HEALTH AND SOCIAL RESEARCH IN MULTI-ETHNIC SOCIETIES James V Nazroo (ed) London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group 2006, xii + 218 pp, 22.99 stg ISBN 10: 0-415-39366-3

Research on ethnicity raises methodological issues which are complex and often difficult to resolve. This crafted, and informative book, explores the methodological challenges which arise in conducting research into people's health and health care in a multi-ethnic environment. It is primarily a practical guide for those wishing to carry out such research in the UK. However, its analyses and case studies are more broadly applicable to the planning, conducting, analysing and evaluation of similar research elsewhere. Its interest also reaches beyond researchers to the users and funders of research, and to development practitioners in general.

How ethnicity is understood will affect the way research is undertaken and analysed, and the policy and programmatic responses. Importantly, the book argues that ethnicity is not predetermined, objective or absolute; nor is it grounded in genes or historical or linguistic ancestors. Rather, as is argued consistently throughout the book, it is a product of social relationships: people choose the characteristics with which to define themselves. These may or may not include ideas of colour, language, history or ancestry. The experience of being a member of a particular ethnic group will also be affected by an individual's other social identities, including gender, age, social class, etc. Further, each ethnic group contains individuals who vary according to language, cultural traditions, religion, skin colour, migration history and pre- and post-migration geographic and social location. For some people, ethnicity will be a fundamental part of how they see themselves and how they interact. For others, ethnicity will have little or no salience.

This conceptual stance has important consequences for the classification and measurement of ethnicity. As a fluid concept, dependent on context, the construction of classification systems will be mediated by considerations of conformity and comparability on the one hand, and the need for definitions of ethnicity to reflect the purpose of the study and the hypothesis under discussion on the other.

The book critically considers the UK Office of National Statistics' decision to adopt self-defined ethnicity with a harmonised question that captures a number of aspects of ethnicity (nationality, country of birth, geographic origin, skin colour), to form a single classification, and limits individuals to selecting only one category from the alternatives provided (White, Mixed, Asian or Asian British, Black or Black British, and Chinese or other ethnic group). This critique will not have direct relevance to Australia where, although self-defined ethnicity has also been adopted, different approaches to classification and different aspects of ethnicity have been used. The book offers critiques of the ONS approach and construction of ethnic groups, most importantly, for an outside reader, reminding us such classifications are simply that: they do not carry explanations and should not be relied on alone. In arguing for a fluid understanding of ethnicity, the authors are committed to measures of ethnicity that will vary across time, context and according to other socio-economic characteristics.

Any research on ethnicity needs to be clear about this concept; but as the book cogently argues, this is only the starting point for a discussion of the methodological issues such research raises. The authors examine an extensive range of concerns relevant to undertaking both qualitative and quantitative research on ethnicity and to also secondary data analysis for ethnicity research. …

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