Mapping Race and Inequality

Race continues to occupy a central role in policy discussions at all levels of government. In the area of health policy in particular, since 1985, the federal government has created several specialized initiatives to explore racial disparities within the Department of Health and Human Services. This is the case even as most scholars agree that that race has no utility as a way of categorizing humans into biologically distinctive groups. Although this constructionist approach to race has become dominant in the social sciences in recent decades, researchers have largely failed to grapple with the corresponding implications for research design and interpretation. This is a major barrier to research on race-based health disparities. We place “race” in quotes in the title of the proposed workshop to call into question popular ideas about race as reflecting natural, biologically based divisions among humans. Race is a multidimensional social construction that is reflected in assessments of power and social structure; culture and representation; individual and collective identity; as well as in cognition and lived experience. Race remains powerful not because racial identity or racial categories say something biologically meaningful, but because of the power of race as a social reality that results in very different lived experiences for individuals and communities, contributing to historic, chronic and embodied racial disparities in health outcomes. How should the fact that “race” is a socially constructed, multi-dimensional phenomenon be understood and measured by researchers studying health disparities? Our workshop, Mapping “Race” and Inequality: Best Practices for Theorizing and Operationalizing “Race” in Health Policy Research, will explore precisely the challenge of capturing race as a multi-faceted social construction. We will convene 20 scholars from the health, social and biological sciences for an intensive, two-day workshop at the Institute for the Study of “Race” & Social Justice, housed at the RWJF Center for Health Policy, a NIH-Center of Excellence at UNM (April 28-29, 2011). The workshop objectives are three-fold. First, we will bring together scholars from multiple disciplines and from across the social/biological/health science divides to share their strategies for grappling with how to operationalize race given the theoretical insight that race is socially constructed. Second, we will generate a set of trans-disciplinary guidelines for social scientists measuring race via existing data sets. These strategies would constitute recommendations to researchers who must rely on how current data sets have operationalized race. Third, we will explore how, in an ideal world without resource constraints, we would most accurately measure race in the collection of new data. Unfettered by current data sets or the problems of collecting primary data (e.g., time, resources, etc.), how would this group seek to measure race in health research as a multi-faceted social construction and also attempt to transcend disciplinary boundaries and methodological orientations? Revised workshop papers will be part of the edited volume Trans-disciplinary Strategies for Research on Racial Disparities & Health Policy, which we will co-edit. We will seek a book contract as well as additional funding for a national conference or special panel at the annual Academy Health research meeting in 2012.
Principal Investigator:    Laura E. Gomez, PhD, School of Law
Co-Investigator:        Nancy Lopez, PhD, Sociology
Project Dates:            09/19/2010 to 12/19/2011