Researchers have been thinking about race all wrong

Researchers have been thinking about race all wrong


Jenée Desmond-Harris

Studies on race are a dime a dozen: researchers examine its relationship to everything from elementary school test scores to who’s most likely to develop diabetes to which groups are overrepresented in ethnic militias to who Americans vote for, and we read about the results in news stories that are supposed to help us makes sense of the world.

But two Ivy League scholars say race is actually much more complicated than decades of social science research has acknowledged, and they’re working to change that.

In their paper, “Race a Bundle of Sticks: Designs that Estimate Effects of Seemingly Immutable Characteristics,” which will be published in the Annual Review of Political Science, Harvard’s Maya Sen and Princeton’s Omar Wasow explain that people who do quantitative research on race typically treat it as a single, fixed trait — what scientists call an “immutable characteristic.”

Instead, they argue, quantitative researchers should acknowledge that any one person’s racial identity is more like a collection of many different factors — from skin color, to neighborhood, to language, to socioeconomic status. With this insight, it becomes possible to study race not as a single, unchanging variable, but rather as a “a bundle of sticks” that can be pulled apart and carefully examined one by one…

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