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Yasmin Khatib measures ethnicity

When Yasmin Khatib was asked to write a few words to describe how academics conduct research to measure ‘ethnicity’ she was willing and happy to write about a subject that has both intrigued and puzzled her over the years. But as she put pen to paper she became stuck.

Do I write about ethnicity as a researcher, or should I incorporate a personal perspective on the issue and draw upon my own experience growing up as a member of an ethnic minority in Lincolnshire, one of the least ethnically diverse counties in the UK. Whilst attempting to make a decision, I recalled the words of one of my PhD supervisors, an expert in cultural psychiatry, ‘Yasmin, how are you going to use your freedom to analyse the research in a way that you want to?’ So, I’m making the choice to write about some key issues that need to be taken into consideration whilst conducting research in the field of ethnicity, whilst drawing upon personal experience to interpret the research.

Whilst culture has been described as something that people ‘eat, drink and breathe’ (Bhugra and Bhui, 2007, p.xvii), ethnicity refers to a common heritage shared by a particular group (Zenner, 1996). With such all encompassing and overlapping definitions, what’s the difference between these concepts? Ethnicity and culture are terms that are often used interchangeably and historically, research involving ethnicity has been guilty of adopting not only an ethnocentric, but also a ‘colonial’ view with respect to differences between groups. Bevis (1921) unashamedly states in an article entitled ‘Psychological traits of the Southern Negro with observations as to some of his psychoses’ that ‘Naturally most of the race are care-free, live in the here and now with a limited capacity to recall or profit by experiences of the past. Sadness and depression have little part in his psychological makeup’. Thankfully current research attempting to identify ethnic differences in mental health doesn’t share such an extremely blinkered view; though it’s obvious to see that today’s newspaper headlines continue to unfortunately make blanket statements involving ethnic minority groups. Such headlines provide a simple take home message, a heuristic for some, to make sense of the social world, but can often overlook the complexity of factors that may confound the association between the wider social context and ethnicity.

There are numerous other pitfalls when trying to undertake and, more importantly, disentangle ethnic variations in patterns of behaviour. In addition to the risk of interpreting behaviour with ethnocentric vision as described above, Senior and Bhopal (1994) point out those populations under the researcher’s microscope are so heterogeneous, that it’s tricky to identify the mechanisms accounting for differences. I’ll tick the ‘Asian Indian’ box when it comes to disclosing information regarding my ethnicity for various equality monitoring forms, but there’s a wealth of information that particular government surveys will also collect such as country of birth, nationality, language spoken at home, parents’ country of birth to name a few to capture the heterogeneity of individuals under research.

So what are the benefits of conducting research with a woolly concept with plenty of potential for misinterpretation and/or over simplification of more complex mechanisms? An increase in migration and globalisation due to economic or political forces has shaped our society into a culturally plural one. In the UK, most minority populations live in cities, particularly in London. My interest in the field stems from the motivation to illustrate that various differences and patterns in behaviour according to ethnic group are not just as simple as the headline grabbers portray. There are a host of possible confounding factors that can be at stake. I would like researchers and non-researchers to develop a more inquiring mindset and see beyond the crude differences and think outside the traditional boxes and boundaries that are presented at the superficial level.

On a less personal note, although we may still be scratching at the surface with research involving ethnicity in its line of enquiry, without this research, there is no hope for finding a remedy for inequalities according to ethnic group. For example, a wealth of literature has attempted to identify specific factors whilst attempting to explain ethnic differences in mental health. These factors may be associated with migration affect. Mental health or pathways to mental health services vary by ethnicity and pinpointing explanations as to why these pathways vary or trying to pin down socio-economic status is a potentially confounding factor in the association between ethnicity and mental health. All three of these avenues open up new lines of research which can seek to bridge the gap in inequality and health, in this case, mental health.

As long as we’re aware that we don’t have all the answers when it comes to conducting and interpreting research involving ethnicity and acknowledge our limitations at each step of the research process, we’ll be making progress in the field.

  • Bevis, W.M. (1921). Psychological traits of the Southern Negro with Observations as to Some of His Psychoses. American Journal of Psychiatry, 78: 69-78.
  • Bhugra, D., & Bhui, K. (2007). Preface. In: D. Bhugra & K. Bhui (Eds.), Textbook of Cultural Psychiatry (pp. xvii-xviii). Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  • Senior, P.A. and Bhopal R. (1994). Ethnicity as a variable in epidemiological research. British Medical Journal, 309 327-330.
  • Zenner, W. P. Ethnicity. In D. Levinson and M. Ember (eds.), Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holton, 1996.

Yasmin Khatib is a Research Associate in Medical Education at University College London and completed her PhD in Psychiatric Epidemiology at Queen Mary, University of London.