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Soc Sci Med. 1996 Jul;43(1):83-91.

Race/ethnicity, the social environment, and health.

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  • 1Department of Health Policy and Management, School of Hygiene and Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA.


International and national research has documented the relations between socio-economic conditions and health. Nonetheless, racial/ethnic group comparisons of health indices frequently are presented in the United States without stratifying or adjusting for socio-economic conditions that could affect interpretation of the data. This paper examines how racial/ethnic group identifiers have been used in past research. While some studies assume biologic differences; others presume that race/ethnicity is a proxy for socio-economic race factors. One consequence of these presumptions has been an underdevelopment of knowledge about racial/ethnic minority populations that could help shape public policies and preventive interventions to reduce disparities in health. Findings from studies that examine the influence of both race and social class on health are reviewed in an effort to clarify the state-of-knowledge. Although the findings vary for particular health indices, the studies provide considerable evidence that socio-economic conditions are a powerful, although not necessarily exclusive, explanatory variable for racial disparities in health. The findings are used as the basis for encouraging more theoretically grounded and methodologically rigorous research rather than avoiding an assessment of the influence of race/ethnicity on health.

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