Researchers from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Poland) and the Interdisciplinary Center for Ethics at Jagiellonian University in Krakow (Poland) analyzed the full texts of 119 articles from the Lit COVID database published in 2020 and 2021 to reconstruct the basic theoretical assumptions about ethnoracism. categories that researchers implicitly assume in their studies. Their results were recently published in Medicine, health care and philosophy.
Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, scientists began to study and report on so-called racial differences in the incidence and mortality of COVID-19. Most researchers have pointed out that it is racism, not races themselves, that generate health disparities. But there were also opposing voices that assumed that racial groups are distinct biological populations and that some differences may be caused by biological factors.
Previous studies have shown that researchers using racial categories in biomedical studies are often unsure of their credentials. There are also reports of huge differences in the way racial categories are reported, both between countries and institutions, as well as between individual scientists. Additionally, some studies have noted the spillover of US regulatory standards regarding race/ethnicity into the European Union.
Polish researchers offered five interpretations of the ethnoracial terms that appeared in the articles reviewed and labeled them as (a) folkloric, (b) demogeographical, (c) sociocultural, (d) multilevel, and (e) institutional. Most of the articles analyzed presented no definitions of racial/ethnic terms and their uses differed considerably, making it difficult to compare and interpret research using ethnoracial categories in genetic contexts, as well as to draw practical conclusions. .
Moreover, in about 60% of the articles analyzed, the category of race referred (implicitly or explicitly) to certain genetic differences between representatives of different populations distinguished according to folk racial classifications or geographical origin.
The authors of the article conclude that what is called “race” or “ethnicity” in one article may mean something else in another. They also argue that the tendency to biologize ethnoracial categories in genetics and genomics can be explained to some extent through reductionist biases, which are widely embedded in the methodology of genetics research. In this understanding, many health disparities are interpreted as the result of genetic differences, although it would be more appropriate to treat them as the effects of societal racism.
“The most fundamental ‘characteristic’ of reductionism that promotes the biologization of social categories is that reductionist methods and explanations typically focus on internal factors (most often broken down and cited in isolation) while ignoring or simplifying the environment of the system in the study,” says Dr. Joanna Karolina Malinowska of Adam Mickiewicz University.
Another research finding is the observation that replacing the word “race” with “ethnicity” (a growing trend in the biomedical sciences) can be problematic. Malinowska and Żuradzki point out that since the term “ethnicity” generally refers to cultural phenomena, using it in reference to ancestry may give the mistaken impression that the cultural sphere is reducible to biological factors.
“We believe that the current institutional framework in the US (unlike the majority of EU countries) that requires the use of ethno-racial categories to collect and report data in clinical trial submissions may support the hypothesis that ethnoracial categories are biologically relevant,” says Professor Tomasz Żuradzki, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Ethics at Jagiellonian University. “Instead, we propose an inverted regulatory framework in which researchers would have to justify why they want to use ethnoracial categories as variables and proxies in their research.”
Joanna K. Malinowska et al, Reductionist methodology and the ambiguity of race and ethnicity categories in biomedical research: an exploratory review of recent evidence, Medicine, health care and philosophy (2022). DOI: 10.1007/s11019-022-10122-y
Provided by the Interdisciplinary Center for Ethics, Jagiellonian University in Krakow
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