In the spirit of promoting interdisciplinary learning, I would like to share an interesting question posed by an article I read in a biology class this semester: why do so many researchers still treat race as a scientific concept? The answer is too nuanced to fully cover in a brief blog post, but in summary, self-identified racial groups barely have enough genetic differences between each other to constitute as being separate from one another. They do carry weight in helping pinpoint social injustices and environmental effects on specific demographics, but they do little to predict a person’s genetic composition. So why are races used to group together people in genetic studies, when race is not even a useful metric of genetic similarities or differences?
The book Superior: The Return of Race Science seeks to answer this question. In it, an anthropologist spends six months following a group of biomedical researchers who are seeking to find if the effect of drugs vary depending on a patient’s race. After the researchers completed their work, the anthropologist asked them a simple question: “How would you define race?” The scientists struggled to respond, varying from avoiding the question to flat-out acknowledging that “racial categories didn’t mean that much”. Clearly, there was no specific definition attached to the concept of race within their research.
To broaden the application of this lesson, I challenge you to look for concrete definitions for terms referenced in academia. If the term is the basis of what a paper’s argument is on, is it a concept that you have a solid understanding of how to define? If not, ask yourself if it is a legitimate criteria, or if it is some sort of proxy being used as a substitute. Using poorly-defined terminology can be easily overlooked when reading a paper, so it is important to keep an eye out for it. Avoid taking things at face value: it can be the difference between doing meaningful research and not finding anything useful.
Requarth, Tim. “Why Do So Many Researchers Still Treat Race as a Scientific Concept?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 30 May 2019, https://slate.com/technology/2019/05/race-science-angela-saini-new-book-superior-deconstructed.html.