Making a difference: The construction of ethnicity in HIV and STI epidemiological research by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)

Alana Proctor*, Anja Krumeich, Agnes Meershoek

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Biomedical and public health researchers and practitioners routinely record and comment on ethnicity: however, the use of this category is often vague and without explicit statement on what ethnicity is or how it correlates to health disparities. Presented here is an inquiry into the case of ethnicity in HIV/STI research in the Netherlands. This paper considers the construction and operationalization of the concept ethnicity in HIV/STI epidemiological research in the Netherlands. The concept ethnicity is followed as it is defined, measured, categorized, communicated and constructed in the annual national HIV/STI surveillance report of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and as this construction co-evolves in society through the Dutch media, politics and prevention practice. The epidemiological work of the RIVM on HIV/STI in The Netherlands has resulted in the materialization of a distinct ethnic construction, the high risk sexual ethnic other, presumed, not only to be at heightened risk for HIV, but also to spread HIV in the Netherlands through promiscuity and absent safe sex practices. This construct is shown to be perpetually self-validating as it informs methodological choices, such that, behavioural studies almost always establish ethnic behavioural differences. The construct and related ethnic rhetoric also allow for the extrapolation of "findings" within a specific ethnic group regarding a specific STI to all groups considered ethnic minorities and so a categorical ethnic minority problem group is constructed within Dutch society. This imagery is disseminated through newspaper articles and dialogue in the Dutch House of Representative and HIV/STI prevention practice, through which the construct is reaffirmed and ascribed scientific and social validity. Knowledge of ethnic minorities' high-risk status and their sexual practices that lead to this become common, and so the construct is further operationalized in government budget planning and subsequent research programmes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1838-1845
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2011


  • The Netherlands
  • Ethnicity
  • HIV
  • STI
  • Migrants
  • Race
  • Epidemiology
  • Co-evolution

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