Biomedical research has a long and complicated history as a tool of oppression, exemplary of the racial science used to legitimise and maintain racial hierarchies in the USA and abroad. While the explicit racism and racial inferiority supported by this research has dissipated and modern methods of inquiry have increased in sophistication and rigor, contemporary biomedical research continues to essentialise race by distilling racial differences and disparities in health to an underlying, biogenetic source. Focusing on the persistence of essentialism in an era of genomic medicine, this paper examines the deep social origins and social implications of the essentialist viewpoint in biomedicine and how it relates to the broader construction of social and scientific knowledge. Invoking Hacking’s ‘looping effects’ as a useful conceptual tool, I then demonstrate how sociohistorical forces influence scientific and medical research in producing evidence that favours and legitimises a biological construction of race. I extend the looping framework to consider a parallel ‘louping’ process whereby applying a socially rooted meaning to race in biomedical research results becomes magnified to influence social norms and ideas about race. As many biomedical researchers are motivated by a desire to eliminate racial disparities in outcomes, I argue that greater social acuity allows scientists to avoid individualising and racialising health, challenge preconceived assumptions about the meaning of racial variation in health and medicine and thus promote and strengthen a socioenvironmental focus on how to best improve individuals’ and population health. Concluding with a call for structural competency in biomedical research, I suggest that empowering scientists to more freely discuss sociostructural factors in their work allows for the continued use of race in biological and medical research, while social scientists and medical humanities scholars stand to benefit from seeing their work imbued with the cultural authority currently granted to biomedicine.
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Funding This research received support from the Population Research Training grant (T32 HD007168) and the Population Research Infrastructure Program (P2C HD050924) awarded to the Carolina Population Center at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Correction notice This article has been corrected since it was published Online First. Funding information has been updated.
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