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Race and Ethnicity as Variables in Nursing Research, 1952–2000

Drevdahl, Denise; Taylor, Janette Y.; Phillips, Debby A.


Background Although the use of race and ethnicity as variables in research has increased over the past five decades, there is confusion regarding the meaning of the terms, as well as how the words are defined and determined in scientific inquiry.

Objective To review the use of race and ethnicity as variables in nursing research literature.

Methods Original research articles published in Nursing Research in the years, 1952, 1955, and every 5 years thereafter through 2000 were reviewed. Those articles describing human characteristics (N = 337) were analyzed for content concerning: (a) frequency of racial and ethnic terms, (b) words used for racial and ethnic categories, (c) definitions of racial and ethnic terms, and (d) how a study participant’s race or ethnicity was determined.

Results Racial and ethnic variables were mentioned in 167 of the 337 reviewed articles. Eighty-one terms and word phrases were used for these variables. In only five articles were the variables defined. Race and ethnic labels were often intermixed and the majority of studies provided no information about how categorization of the participant’s race or ethnicity was made. In addition, there was relatively little growth in the number of studies that had racial/ethnic groups, other than Whites, as the majority of the sample.

Conclusion Racial and ethnic variables provide nurse researchers with many challenges. Although race and ethnicity were widely used in Nursing Research articles, the categories were not defined in the majority of papers, and methods used to determine a participant’s race or ethnicity were unclear. In order to construct a common and consistent understanding of racial and ethnic categories, nurse researchers should be explicit regarding the rationale related to their use of the categories and the assumptions underlying particular racial and ethnic categorizations.

Denise Drevdahl, PhD, RN, is Assistant Professor, Nursing Program, University of Washington Tacoma.

Janette Y. Taylor, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor, College of Nursing, The University of Iowa, Iowa City.

Debby A. Phillips, PhD, ARNP, CS, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing, Seattle University, Washington.

Accepted for publication April 10, 2001.

The authors thank Sondra Perdue, DrPH, Consultant and Coordinator for the Office of Scholarship Support, and Richard Stackman, PhD, Assistant Professor, at the University of Washington, Tacoma, for their technical assistance, and Colleen Varcoe, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, for her support, and the anonymous reviewers for their instructive comments.

Address reprint requests to Denise Drevdahl, PhD, RN, University of Washington, Tacoma, 1900 Commerce Street, Box 358421, Tacoma, WA 98402 (e-mail:

© 2001 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.