Open Access Open Badges Correspondence

Contributions and challenges of cross-national comparative research in migration, ethnicity and health: insights from a preliminary study of maternal health in Germany, Canada and the UK

Sarah M Salway1*, Gina Higginbottom2, Birgit Reime3, Kuldip K Bharj4, Punita Chowbey1, Caroline Foster2, Jule Friedrich5, Kate Gerrish1, Zubia Mumtaz6 and Beverley O'Brien2

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Health and Social Care Research, Sheffield Hallam University, 32 Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield, S10 2BP, UK

2 Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, University Terrace, 8303-112 Street, Edmonton, T6G 2T4, Canada

3 Bernhard-Nocht-Institute for Tropical Medicine, Bernhard-Nocht-Str. 74, Hamburg, D-20359, Germany

4 Leeds Institute of Health and Social Work, School of Healthcare, University of Leeds, Baines Wing, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK

5 Op de Elg 52, 22393 Hamburg, Germany

6 Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Alberta, University Terrace, 8303-112 Street, Edmonton, T6G 2T4, Canada

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:514  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-514

Published: 29 June 2011



Public health researchers are increasingly encouraged to establish international collaborations and to undertake cross-national comparative studies. To-date relatively few such studies have addressed migration, ethnicity and health, but their number is growing. While it is clear that divergent approaches to such comparative research are emerging, public health researchers have not so far given considered attention to the opportunities and challenges presented by such work. This paper contributes to this debate by drawing on the experience of a recent study focused on maternal health in Canada, Germany and the UK.


The paper highlights various ways in which cross-national comparative research can potentially enhance the rigour and utility of research into migration, ethnicity and health, including by: forcing researchers to engage in both ideological and methodological critical reflexivity; raising awareness of the socially and historically embedded nature of concepts, methods and generated 'knowledge'; increasing appreciation of the need to situate analyses of health within the wider socio-political setting; helping researchers (and research users) to see familiar issues from new perspectives and find innovative solutions; encouraging researchers to move beyond fixed 'groups' and 'categories' to look at processes of identification, inclusion and exclusion; promoting a multi-level analysis of local, national and global influences on migrant/minority health; and enabling conceptual and methodological development through the exchange of ideas and experience between diverse research teams. At the same time, the paper alerts researchers to potential downsides, including: significant challenges to developing conceptual frameworks that are meaningful across contexts; a tendency to reify concepts and essentialise migrant/minority 'groups' in an effort to harmonize across countries; a danger that analyses are superficial, being restricted to independent country descriptions rather than generating integrated insights; difficulties of balancing the need for meaningful findings at country level and more holistic products; and increased logistical complexity and costs.


In view of these pros and cons, the paper encourages researchers to reflect more on the rationale for, feasibility and likely contribution of proposed cross-national comparative research that engages with migration, ethnicity and health and suggests some principles that could support such reflection.