Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Is research into ethnicity and health racist, unsound, or important science?

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 14 June 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1751
  1. Raj Bhopal, professor and head (
  1. a Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH
  1. Correspondence to: Professor Bhopal Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 7400, USA (until 10 June 1997).
  • Accepted 18 December 1996

Much historical research on race, intelligence, and health was racist, unethical, and ineffective. The concepts of race and ethnicity are difficult to define but continue to be applied to the study of the health of immigrant and ethnic minority groups in the hope of advancing understanding of causes of disease. While a morass of associations has been generated, race and ethnicity in health research have seldom given fundamental new understanding of disease. Most such research is “black box epidemiology.” Researchers have not overcome the many conceptual and technical problems of research into ethnicity and health. By emphasising the negative aspects of the health of ethnic minority groups, research may have damaged their social standing and deflected attention from their health priorities. Unless researchers recognise the difficulties with research into ethnicity and health and correct its weaknesses, 20th century research in this subject may suffer the same ignominious fate as that of race science in the 19th century.


Epidemiology aids health policy and planning and helps discover the laws governing health and disease. As with other sciences,1 2 3 epidemiology has been beguiled by ethnicity and race4 5 and has become racialised. Racialisation consists of the idea that race is a primary, natural, and neutral means of grouping humans and that racial groups are distinct in other ways, such as their behaviours.6 Racialism is the belief in the superiority of some races. In this paper I draw lessons from the racialised research of the 19th century, discuss the terms race and ethnicity, and analyse the value of and problems with research into ethnicity and health.

Research on race: a historical look

Racialised research has an inglorious history: scientists have been besotted by race and ethnicity, while politicians and social commentators have encouraged them.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 …

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