Race is best understood as the result of a process informed by social values and institutional practices that imbue superficial differences between groups, such as skin color, eye shape or language, with unwarranted significance. Historically, this has been informed by hierarchical thinking, in which group differences and social inequalities are naturalized and rearticulated as biological realities . Genomic research that uses racial categories in the investigation of genetic contributions to disease can also inadvertently support such 'racialization' and influence how findings of group differences are interpreted and, in turn, translated into clinical care and health policy.
Clearly, although the recognition that certain susceptibility variants are more prevalent in certain groups can have health benefits, such observations should not validate the politically and historically charged concept of race or support assumptions that the entire range of attributes ascribed to race have a biological basis. There is a need to develop strategies to mitigate the inappropriate and potentially inaccurate use of categorizing terminology. The available recommendations, outlined in Box 2, have merit. But there are numerous social forces and tendencies, such as those outlined above, that challenge progress towards constructive change.
Future policy and social-science work should focus on exploring the influence of these social forces. For example, although some research in this area has already been done [62, 67], a more nuanced understanding of how data on human genomic variation are interpreted by media, and in turn assimilated by the public, is needed. Recommendations for communication strategy could be used to raise the awareness of researchers as to how their work is apprehended by lay audiences (Box 2), especially journalists. Engagement and education of both scientists and media on their social and ethical responsibilities would be a related actionable strategy (Box 2). In the arena of clinical trials and genetic epidemiological research, the social impact and scientific utility of alternative methods of subject identification and reporting of findings could be explored. Most importantly, consideration should be given not only to ensuring that relevant policy recommendations are effectively implemented, but that they are being followed.
Finally, it must be recognized that the discussion and analysis surrounding the use of race, ethnicity or ancestry in medicine is, for the most part, flowing from scholars in North America and Europe. However, a number of countries, including Mexico, India [68, 69], Thailand and South Africa, are already doing, or planning to undertake, projects studying human genetic diversity within their own populations; and in many others, such as Brazil, extensive admixture has created a continuum of ancestral proportions among individuals that challenge racial classification. It will therefore be important that experts from communities in both the emerging economies and developing countries also contribute to this very important debate.