Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race

Learning Lessons from the Past


Merlin Chowkwanyuna1 c1

a1 Department of History, Graduate Program in Public Health Studies, University of Pennsylvania


Although thriving in many respects, racial health disparities research suffers from a lack of historical analysis and may be in danger of reaching a saturation point. This article examines how renewed attention to history can enhance the explanatory power of such research. First, it surveys a body of writing on what history can contribute to contemporary social science and policy debates. Next, it compares current racial health disparities research to the analytical impasse encountered by urban poverty researchers of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It contrasts that work with two classic post-Second World War urban histories, and identifies qualities of the latter lacking in conventional social science. The essay then surveys historically oriented works on race and health, pointing out their usefulness to racial health disparities research while discussing promising future research directions. It concludes with a brief reflection on changes in the academic institutional context necessary for fruitful synergy between public health researchers and historians.

(Online publication April 15 2011)


  • Racial/Ethnic Health Disparities;
  • African American History;
  • Urban Poverty;
  • Methodology;
  • Public Health;
  • Social Determinants of Health;
  • Fundamental Causes


c1 Merlin Chowkwanyun, Department of History, Graduate Program in Public Health Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 208 College Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail: merlinc@sas.upenn.edu

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a dual-degree MPH-PhD candidate in Public Health and History at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a Dissertation Fellow with the Miller Center for Public Affairs, University of Virginia. He is writing a dissertation on post-WWII medical care and environmental health inequality in four American regions and a narrative history of health activism in New York City during the War on Poverty era. His solo- and co-authored articles have appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy, and Journal of Urban Affairs, and he recently co-edited American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: Essays in Honor of Herbert J. Gans (2011).