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Trends in the use of racial terminology in biological anthropology, 1946 – 2015


The discipline of biological anthropology has historically been fraught with problematic approaches to the study of human race. In recent history, biological anthropologists have been engaged in an ongoing debate over the role of racial and ethnic classification in anthropological research. Here we contribute to that debate by examining the use of racial terminology in biological anthropology research in order to determine how concepts of race and ethnicity have been applied by biological anthropologists over time in the United States. We present a content analysis of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, based on a systematic review of empirical research articles. We conducted two searches of this journal in PubMed using MeSH terms related to Americans of European descent (e.g., white, Caucasian, Euro-American etc., 1946-2015, n=100) and terms related to Hispanic populations (e.g. Hispanic, Mexican-American, Latino/a, etc., 1954-2015, n=75). We identified both differences and similarities in the ways that the concepts of race and ethnicity have been used in biological anthropology to refer to Hispanic and European American populations. For instance, articles referring to Hispanic populations tended to use the term “ethnicity,” while articles referring to European American populations tended to use the term “race.” Additionally, we identified noteworthy diachronic trends in the identification of race and ethnicity, including an increase in self-identified race through time. Finally, we offer recommendations for ways that biological anthropologists can engage with concepts of race and ethnicity in a consistent way that promotes greater equality and avoids promoting racial bias, both in anthropology and in other fields.

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