Research Design and Methods

Research Objectives

The goals of the research are to identify ethnic substructure in New Mexicans of Spanish-speaking descent (NMS) and to examine its sociocultural and biological consequences.


The nature, causes, and implications of race and ethnicity have received considerable attention from scholars in diverse disciplines. The attention is warranted because race and ethnicity are key determinants of human welfare. Although research in the social and biomedical sciences has made seminal contributions to our understanding of the nature and cultural and biological significance of race and ethnicity, much of this research suffers from several important limitations, including:

  1. reliance on static US Census-based race and ethnic categories that do not fully capture how people think about variation, especially at regional and local levels where it most affects people day to day,
  2. the assumption of relative sociocultural and biological homogeneity within racial or ethnic groups,
  3. reliance on indirect or inadequate measures of sociocultural and biological variation,
  4. the assumption that racial and ethnic groups are geographically and temporally stable,
  5. the uncritical use of ethnicity as a proxy for genetic ancestry, and
  6. the failure to employ a truly multidisciplinary biocultural and evolutionary perspective.

These limitations impede our understanding of how people conceive identity, adversely affect public policy designed to reduce disparity in economic opportunity and health, and retard our ability to understand the contribution of race and ethnicity to the evolution of multifactorial phenotypes.

Research Questions

  1. Do NMS recognize subgroups? If so, what are the subgroups? What sociocultural and biological features do individuals think distinguish the subgroups?
  2. Do individuals agree about what the subgroups are?
  3. What cultural, phenotypic, and genetic features distinguish the subgroups identified by NMS?
  4. What role does ethnic substructure play in health and non-health phenotypes, and is this role genetic, sociocultural, or some combination of the two?
  5. Are sociocultural and biological differences between the ethnic subgroups identified by New Mexicans solely the result of recent migrations from Latin America?
  6. What affect does age and intermarriage have on ethnic assignment and the stability of ethnic groups?


Our approach consisted of the following steps.

First, we recruited NMS to the study using advertisements on the UNM campus and mailers sent to households throughout Albuquerque and the surrounding area. The criteria for inclusion of the study was that people described themselves as NMS and that they were 18 years or older. Using these methods and criteria, we enrolled 507 NMS in the study. CLICK HERE for more information about our sampling strategy.

Second, we collected comprehensive measures of sociocultural and biological variation. The sociocultural data came from one-on-one interviews that consisted of 126 questions (download the survey). One of the key questions asked the participants to describe groups of NMS that they deemed to be socially relevant. With regard to group membership, each participant was asked:

People in New Mexico that are of Spanish speaking ancestry often identify/divide themselves into at least two different groups. Based on your experience living here in NM, what are the groups that people of Spanish-speaking descent use to describe/identify themselves? Which of these groups [that you just listed/named] do you belong to?

The biological data included indirect measures of health and disease, including biomarkers collected from dried blood spots, and genetic markers that we used to estimated continental ancestry (commonly referred to as "genetic ancestry").

Fourth, we measured the distribution of sociocultural, phenotypic, and genetic variation within and between the ethnic subgroups identified by NMS.

Fifth, we attempted to quantify the effects of intermarriage and immigration on the stability of ethnic subgroups.

We also conducted a follow-up study with a subset of participants from the original research. Here, we asked questions about diet, lifestyle, health, and stress in childhood (download the survey). To examine the affects of childhood factors on later health, we compared the answers to these questions to characteristics of the 3D photos and biomarkers that were taken as part of the original study.

The Research Team

Our core team includes:

  • Dr. Keith Hunley, a genetic anthropologist whose research has focused on linguistic and genetic coevolution, the taxonomic and medical genetic implications of human genetic variation, human population history, and human origins.
  • Dr. Heather Edgar is a biocultural anthropologist whose research has focused on the historical pattern of admixture in the US and its implications for the stability of ethnic groups and forensic assignment.
  • Meghan Healy is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at UNM. Her research looks at relationships between ethnic identity, ancestry and culture in New Mexicans of Spanish-speaking descent.
  • Carmen Mosely is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at UNM. Her research focuses on the sociocultural and biological factors that influence health risk among New Mexican Hispanics.

View more information on the About the Researchers page.

For the first half of data collection, we used some fliers and a snowball method of obtaining participants, meaning that we relied of participants to tell other people they knew about the study. For the second half of our data collection, we used census data to target zip codes in Albuquerque for the ages and incomes needed to make our sample as representative of the state as possible.