Its one of the most common questions researchers ask: how does race or ethnicity affect what Im studying? Whether its a behavior, a health condition or a belief, differences almost invariably turn up when comparing one racial or ethnic group to another.
But what do the differences mean and are the differences shown really true? Two recent events at the School of Nursing, part of the schools observation of Martin Luther King Day, examined how race and ethnicity factor into research. The first was a panel discussion on the appropriate use of race as a variable in research, the second a presentation on culturally sensitive research.
James Jackson, director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, said that early in his career, he simply refused to do comparative studies of one race to another because it didnt seem researchers were asking the right questions of the right people, nor did they know what the differences meant. For example, he said, researchers wanting to understand behavior within one group would compare that group to whites. Why, he asked, is white behavior considered the standard against which other groups should be compared?
Debra Brown, a registered nurse and program associate in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the School of Nursing, said she had a difficult time initially explaining to her dissertation committee why she only wanted to study Blacks, and did not plan to include whites in the study. Her research was about Black behavior and including other groups would only confuse the focus, she said. Brown noted that comparisons across groups can show disparities and discrepancies, but also can make one group appear inferior, particularly if researchers dont think through their results. For example, are the differences in groups really about race or are they about socioeconomic status, education or income?
Where and how researchers find their study subjects could skew numbers with one or more of those factorscomparing a wide cross section of whites to a narrow group of poor Blacks who live in Harlem is almost certain to find differences, Jackson said.
Brown noted how the wording of a research questionnaire itself could skew numbers, as well. In a study of healthy behaviors, figures showed Black Americans were less likely to exercise and to eat breakfast. But the study questions gave as examples of physical activities, such things as swimming, golf and tennisnot the sorts of things older Blacks might engage in, Brown said with a laugh. SeonAe Yeo, associate professor of nursing, had similar criticisms for questionnaires about physical activity, which she believes lean toward white-male activities, such as competitive sports, but dont reflect female or minority activities like climbing stairs, gardening or walking.
Mei-yu Yu, associate research scientist at Nursing and director of the Health Asian Americans Project, said few studies do a good job of assessing Asian-American behavior because its a difficult group to include. Asians dont share a common language, history, culture or religion, and because many Asian-Americans are recent immigrants, many do not speak the language well. This is particularly true of the elderly. Because its a group with unique health needsAsian-American women have lower rates of breast and cervical cancer than any other U.S. racial or ethnic population, for exampleits important to overcome these barriers, Yu said.
Yeo said lack of understanding of cultural differences can lead those analyzing the numbers to draw inaccurate or incomplete conclusions. As one example, she said Asian custom prescribes the activities and diet of a woman who has just given birth as a precaution for her health, but not knowing those customs might lead someone outside the culture to see those practices as simply deviant from how other groups behave after giving birth.
Some of the suggestions the speakers offered to researchers who want to do a better job of representing race and ethnicity in their works:
Theres nothing wrong with doing race research, Jackson said, but like anything else, you need to justify why you need to ask about race.
Yeo added that people dont understand how to budget and allow time for designing culturally-sensitive studies. Its neither easy nor cheap, she said, but the payoff is worth it.