The Ambiguous Meanings of the Racial/Ethnic Categories Routinely used in Human Genetics Research

The Ambiguous Meanings of the Racial/Ethnic Categories Routinely used in Human Genetics Research

Social Science & Medicine
Volume 66, Issue 2 (January 2008)
pages 349-361
DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.08.034

Linda M. Hunt, Professor of Anthropology
Michigan State University

Mary S. Megyesi, M.Sc.
Michigan State University

Many researchers are currently studying the distribution of genetic variations among diverse groups, with particular interest in explaining racial/ethnic health disparities. However, the use of racial/ethnic categories as variables in biological research is controversial. Just how racial/ethnic categories are conceptualized, operationalized, and interpreted is a key consideration in determining the legitimacy of their use, but has received little attention. We conducted semi-structured, open-ended interviews with 30 human genetics scientists from the US and Canada who use racial/ethnic variables in their research. They discussed the types of classifications they use, the criteria upon which they are based, and their methods for classifying individual samples and subjects. We found definitions of racial/ethnic variables were often lacking or unclear, the specific categories they used were inconsistent and context specific, and classification practices were often implicit and unexamined. We conclude that such conceptual and practical problems are inherent to routinely used racial/ethnic categories themselves, and that they lack sufficient rigor to be used as key variables in biological research. It is our position that it is unacceptable to persist in the constructing of scientific arguments based on these highly ambiguous variables.

…A number of serious problems with using race/ethnicity as a variable in genetics research have emerged in our analysis of our interviews with this group of genetic scientists. At the most basic level, the common racial/ethnic classifications they routinely use are of questionable value for delineating genetically related groups. The ubiquitous OMB categories in fact were designed for political and administrative purposes; they were not designed for use as scientific variables (Kertzer & Arel, 2002; Shields et al., 2005). These are notably ambiguous and arbitrary categories, based on strikingly diverse criteria such as skin color, language, or geographic location. They do not compose clear classifications, but instead are overlapping and not mutually exclusive. In the absence of clear principles for applying the labels, in practice, different aspects of an individual’s identity are arbitrarily prioritized, in order to fit individual cases into the schema.

A serious conceptual problem that reinforces the use of these questionable categories is that many of the researchers presume racial admixture is relatively rare and recent, and that specific geographically defined groups, such as Finnish or Japanese, can unproblematically be equated with broad socially designated racial/ethnic groups, such as white or Asian. However, this logic relies on several unsubstantiated assumptions: that historically there were pure racial types associated with particular geographic locations; that migrations were sporadic and relatively rare; and that racial/ethnic groups are primarily endogamous. (A recent study of the views of genetics journals editors reports similar findings: Outram & Ellison, 2006.) These assumptions are contrary to much of what is known about human population history. Genetic isolation among humans is in fact quite rare: human populations have always exchanged mates across broad geographic areas throughout time, producing clinal variation (gradual variation between places), rather than clearly distinct genetic stocks. Furthermore, racial admixture is not an exceptional event; indeed, there has been significant intermarriage between socially designated groups throughout history (Weiss, 1998; Harry & Marks, 1999; Race Ethnicity and Genetics Working Group, 2005). Compounding these conceptual problems is the practical fact that assigning these labels to individuals is often done in the absence of any specific knowledge of their actual familial migration histories.

Heavy reliance on self-identification, as reported by these researchers, further amplifies the imprecision to these variables. Despite its popularity, this method for classifying cases is extremely problematic. Racial/ethnic identities are inherently amorphous constructs; they are multiple and fluid, and may change as a person moves between social, economic and geographic contexts (Berry, 1993; Hunt, Schneider & Comer, 2004). There is no way to know what criteria an individual may apply when classifying their own racial/ethnic identity, and the criteria is likely to vary dramatically from person to person. Although some researchers collect additional information about parents and grandparents, this is only done for certain racial/ethnic groups, and never with others, and there appears to be no standard criteria for assigning group membership based on the additional information…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,