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Hispanic Center Webinar Compares Research Design Approaches to Transform the Narrative on Latino Populations

The first two authors contributed equally to this piece and are listed in alphabetical order.

In July 2022, the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families (the Center) hosted a webinar to discuss a critical topic in research involving Latino populations: whether, and when, to center research around the Latino experience (within-group designs) versus comparing Latinos’ experiences and outcomes to those of other racial and ethnic groups (between-group designs). The webinar, titled Transforming the Narrative on Latino Populations: When and How to Use Comparison Groups in Research, featured Dr. Cynthia García Coll, Dr. William Lopez, and Dr. Gaby Barajas-Gonzalez. This summary document shares key takeaways from their discussion.

Decisions about the design of a study involving Latino populations have implications for researchers’ ability to recognize the diversity of Latino populations, highlight their strengths, identify levers for change, and conduct equitable and culturally responsive research. As such, these considerations have become central to the Center’s own work and the work of other researchers who focus on Latino populations. These considerations also have implications for the policy and practice insights that research provides for improving Latino families’ well-being.

During the webinar, panelists shared their expertise and insights on the most appropriate research design for studies with Latino populations, as well as the strengths and challenges of within- and between-group designs. Throughout the discussion, panelists drew on their lived experiences in different geographic areas within the United States, their various positions in academia, and their training and experience as researchers who work with various Latino communities.

Within-group studies that center the Latino experience and between-group research focusing on racial and ethnic differences offer two approaches to answering different questions and achieving different goals.

The decision to center the Latino experience—versus conducting racial and ethnic group comparisons in research—should be hypothesis-driven and informed by the research question and study objectives. It is important to recognize that there is a time and place to use both approaches in our research. Jointly, the two approaches provide complementary information that can contextualize findings within the larger population while providing a deeper understanding of the experiences and strengths of Latino populations.

Comparison group research can help document differences in access to services and point to places where systems and institutions may be failing racialized populations. For example, between-group comparisons documenting racial and ethnic differences in access to COVID-19 relief can inform policy responses. Between-group comparisons, however, may not always be conceptually or methodologically appropriate when describing individual characteristics that can further stigmatize groups, or when sample sizes are small and there is low power to detect differences. Between-group comparison design may also obscure the heterogeneity and strengths of the Latino community. When left without appropriate context, racial and ethnic differences can be misinterpreted as deficiencies in specific populations and further entrench harmful narratives. Thus, it is important to contextualize findings and identify root causes that produce observed differences to better inform policy and programmatic solutions. Researchers must also be cautious that between-group designs do not reaffirm White1 supremacy and the assumption (implicit or otherwise) that White European middle-class norms and behaviors are the standard that minoritized groups must obtain.

Centering research on the Latino experience allows greater opportunity to highlight the diversity of Latino communities.

The Latino population is incredibly diverse in terms of its migration history, the legal and political climate encountered upon arrival in the United States, acculturation level, customs, and languages used. For example, until 2017, Cuban citizens admitted or paroled into the United States qualified for permanent residence one year and one day after entry under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act—a benefit that was not available to Latino immigrants from other countries. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth and do not have to interact with the immigration system as other Latino immigrants do, eliminating specific—but not all—barriers to social services. It is important to learn about the history of different Latino groups in the United States and the context of their reception, as sociopolitical contexts shape opportunities and barriers for economic, educational, and civic engagement.

Research that specifically focuses on Latino populations is better suited to explore this variation. Studies that center Latino populations provide a greater opportunity to explore the intersection between Hispanic heritage and other sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., nativity, income, country of origin) that are often confounded in studies. These studies may also allow a deeper understanding of the experiences within the Latino community. For example, within-group analyses can help uncover how the use of different dialects among Latino individuals may have hindered their access to services during the pandemic. Studies that center the Latino experience are also better suited to understand culturally specific processes (e.g., the role of respeto or familismo in family dynamics) that may not be relevant or culturally comparable to other groups. By focusing on Latino populations or a specific Latino subgroup, we improve our understanding of the unique experiences and strengths of Latino populations without imposing the standards used for other populations.

The dominant scientific approach in the social sciences is still “White-centric.” Transforming the status quo involves dismantling ideologies and structures that prevent equitable research by being a part of the force that changes these systems.

The research world has seen significant progress in recognizing the value of focusing on Latino populations, but the dominant scientific approach in the social sciences continues to be “White-centric.” There is pressure to adopt scientific approaches that focus on between-group comparisons in order to receive funding, publication, and tenure. Research focused on minoritized groups is often not seen as legitimate, generalizable, or cost-effective, so researchers may default to traditional approaches that compare the experiences of minoritized groups to White individuals. Additionally, researchers are often asked, “But how do Latino populations compare to White populations?” Instead, we should ask whether such a comparison is needed and what assumptions and biases may drive the need for between-group comparisons. 

These dominant research approaches are embedded in power structures that prioritize and reinforce the experiences of White populations. Changing the status quo involves challenging the systems that support these structures across contexts (e.g., academia, workplaces, federal policies, school systems, justice systems, health care systems). Investing in change implies shifting who occupies positions of power and how they use that power, and likely requires that we communicate that research centering the Latino experience is good science. To achieve this, there must be increased diversity in perspectives across levels (e.g., trainees, scholars, selection committees, those in leadership positions). Researchers can become part of this paradigm shift by serving as reviewers, participating in committees, and becoming funders, deans, presidents, and elected board members. Jointly, it is possible to create a paradigm shift in which Latino-centered research is valued and supported.


1We note that the majority of Latinos report that they are White. Here, we use “White” to refer to Caucasian populations that are descendants of non-Hispanic Europeans.

Suggested citation

Aceves, L., Ramos-Olazagasti, M., & Guzman, L. (2022). Hispanic Center webinar compares research design approaches to transform the narrative on Latino populations. National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families. https://www.hispanicresearchcenter.org/research-resources/hispanic-center-webinar-compares-research-design-approaches-to-transform-the-narrative-on-latino-populations


We would like to acknowledge our panelists, Dr. Cynthia García Coll, Dr. William Lopez, and Dr. Gaby Barajas-Gonzalez, for sharing their experiences and expertise.

The authors would also like to thank the Steering Committee of the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families—along with Laura Ramirez and Dominique Parris—for their helpful comments, edits, and research assistance at multiple stages of this project. The Center’s Steering Committee is made up of the Center investigators—Drs. Natasha Cabrera (University of Maryland, Co-I), Danielle Crosby (University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Co-I), Lisa Gennetian (Duke University; Co-I), Lina Guzman (Child Trends and PI), Julie Mendez (University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Co-I), and Maria Ramos-Olazagasti (Child Trends and Building Capacity lead)—and federal project officers Drs. Ann Rivera, Jenessa Malin, and Minna Addo (Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation).

Editor: Brent Franklin

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