Revisiting Robinson: The perils of individualistic and ecologic fallacy

SV Subramanian, K Jones, A Kaddour, N Krieger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

205 Citations (Scopus)


Background W S Robinson made a seminal contribution by demonstrating thatcorrelations for the same two variables can be different at theindividual and ecologic level. This study reanalyzes and historicallysituates Robinson’s influential study that laid the foundation forthe primacy of analyzing data at only the individual level.Methods We applied a binomial multilevel logistic model to analyse variation inilliteracy as enumerated by the 1930 US. Census (the same data asused by Robinson). The outcome was log odds of being illiterate, whilepredictors were race/nativity (‘native whites’, ‘foreign-born whites’and ‘negroes’) at the individual-level, and presence of Jim Crow segregation laws for education at the state-level. We conductedhistorical research to identify the social and scientific context withinwhich Robinson’s study was produced and favourably received.Results Empirically, the substantial state variations in illiteracy could not beaccounted by the states’ race/nativity composition. Different approachesto modelling state-effects yielded considerably attenuatedassociations at the individual-level between illiteracy and race/nativity. Furthermore, state variation in illiteracy was differentacross the race/nativity groups, with state variation being largest forwhites and least for foreign-born whites. Strong effects of Jim Croweducation laws on illiteracy were observed with the effect being strongestfor blacks. Historically, Robinson’s study was consonant with thepost-World War II ascendancy of methodological individualism.Conclusion Applying a historically informed multilevel perspective to Robinson’sprofoundly influential study, we demonstrate that meaningfulanalysis of individual-level relationships requires attention tosubstantial heterogeneity in state characteristics. The implication is that perils are posed by not only ecological fallacy but also individualistic fallacy. Multilevel thinking, grounded in historicaland spatiotemporal context, is thus a necessity, not an option.
Translated title of the contributionRevisiting Robinson: The perils of individualistic and ecologic fallacy
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)342 - 360
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Epidemiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2009

Bibliographical note

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Other identifier: Online ISSN 1464-3685


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