Public Release: 

Study of diabetes and race reveals the imperfect science of defining ethnic groups

Biologists are swayed by social makeup and history

University of California - Irvine


IMAGE: Research by UC Irvine anthropologist Michael Montoya calls into question how race-specific information is being gathered and interpreted by the medical community as well as how it is presented to... view more

Credit: Christine Byrd

Irvine, Calif., Feb. 14, 2007 -- While previous biomedical research studies have found that genetics and race increase risk for some diseases, a new look into how researchers study genetic triggers of type 2 diabetes suggests that defining race remains an inexact science, with social and historic facts mixing with biology throughout the research process.

The new study by a UC Irvine anthropologist calls into question not only how race-specific information is being gathered and interpreted by the medical community, but how it is presented to the public through media and pharmaceutical marketing.

Anthropologist Michael Montoya followed the trail of DNA samples from the moment they were donated by people living along the U.S.-Mexican border, to the eventual publication of findings in scientific journals. Examining the work of biomedical researchers across the U.S. and in England who used the data, Montoya found the scientists used social and historical explanations -- not biological differences -- to define race and ethnicity in the research. For example, he quotes scientists who cite differences in skin tone or historic events, such as an island's native population being wiped out, as part of their reasoning for labeling and comparing specific ethnic groups. Genetic studies have sparked international headlines suggesting that Mexicans are predisposed to type 2 diabetes.

"Although it's true that certain ethnic groups have higher rates of diabetes, our social understanding of race is grafted into the scientific research," said Montoya, assistant professor of anthropology and Chicano/Latino studies. "Therefore, research that presumes race is biological may confuse matters instead of improving our understanding of the causes of chronic diseases like diabetes."

The study appears in the February issue of the journal Cultural Anthropology.

"Montoya's detailed ethnographic research on Mexican American diabetes shows us just how problematical it is to link health inequalities in any way to genetic variation rather than structural inequalities," said Alan Goodman, president of the American Anthropological Association and professor at Hampshire College.

Montoya found that some genetic scientists are concerned about how race is politicized in their research. He recounts the story of two genetic researchers in conflict with editors at a major scientific journal who insisted that the title of their article about diabetes and genetics specify that the findings were in "Mexican Americans." Later, when the findings were replicated in white groups, the researchers were allowed to omit the ethnic label from the title. The implication, notes Montoya, is that to ethnically label the scientific discovery promotes the idea that the finding is not about universal human biology, but only about Mexican American biology, which he calls "scientific nonsense."

"Unfortunately, looking for genetic factors that influence diabetes in ethnic groups ignores the social factors like poverty and access to health care that have a much stronger correlation to the rates of diabetes among certain groups. And if we don't understand that those groups are not biological, we will look for biological explanations for their disease rates when we should be looking for social ones."


Montoya is on the faculty of UCI's Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community (PRIME-LC), the first medical education program in the country designed to meet the growing demand for physicians and public health leaders who are culturally sensitive and can address the distinct and specific needs of Latinos.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gen Foundation for Anthropological Research. For this study, Montoya spent more than a year and a half traveling through the U.S., Mexico and England to document how researchers, clinicians and pharmaceutical representatives use, write and speak about ethnic groups. In the course of his fieldwork, Montoya analyzed thousands of instances of diabetes professionals using bioethnic descriptions of people or their blood.

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