Brief Research Within versus Outside Existing Systems
Framing and Studying the Effects of Structural Racism
Rekha Balu, Karishma Furtado, Chitra Balakrishnan, Claire Cusella, Brian Smedley
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This resource provides concrete ideas to support and engage research teams in studying structural racism. We explain how research conducted through a structural racism lens (i.e., “structural racism research”) differs from research conducted within a traditional empirical framework—at a minimum by going beyond racial subgroup analyses (differences in outcomes), ideally by exploring how structures and systems interact to create those outcomes (differences in inputs, exposures, interactions, and mechanisms and their relationship to differences in outcomes). We then address the research project life cycle and guide researchers to implement two approaches to structural racism research:

  • The within-existing-systems approach acknowledges current policy constraints and systems as designed and studies changes to structural conditions that could result in incremental changes.
  • The outside-existing-systems approach reimagines or transforms current systems and policy designs and studies alternative systems, structures, and policies that could result in transformative changes.

Finally, we reflect on how research from both approaches can coexist and complement each other to achieve policy impact.


Research through a structural frame shifts focus away from an individual’s race or other characteristics as associated with disparities and toward systems and structures as drivers of disparities. In partnership with affected communities, researchers name racism at varying levels (institutional, structural, systemic, cultural) as the problem to study, apply research methods that account for historical patterns or accumulation of disadvantage, and develop program interventions or policy recommendations to change the perverse incentives within those systems and structures.

Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Community engagement Racial and ethnic disparities Race, gender, class, and ethnicity Racial inequities in economic mobility Racial inequities in health Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development Racial equity in education Race and equity in grantmaking Structural racism Structural racism in research, data, and technology
Policy Centers Office of Race and Equity Research