Reconsidering the Reference Category

Sociological Methodology

Social scientists often present modeling results from categorical explanatory variables, such as gender, race, and marital status, as coefficients representing contrasts to a “reference” group. Although choosing the reference category may seem arbitrary, the authors argue that it is an intrinsically meaningful act that affects the interpretability of results. Reference category selection foregrounds some contrasts over others. Also, selecting a culturally dominant group as the reference can subtly reify the notion that dominant groups are the most “normal.” The authors find that three of four recently published tables in Demography and American Sociological Review that include race or gender explanatory variables use dominant groups (i.e., male or white) as the reference group. Furthermore, the tables rarely state what the reference is: only half of tables with race variables and one-fifth of tables with gender variables explicitly specify the reference category; the rest leave it up to the reader to check the methods section or simply guess. As an alternative to this apparently standard practice, the authors suggest guidelines for intentionally and responsibly choosing a reference category. The authors then discuss alternative ways to convey results from categorical explanatory variables that avoid the problems of reference categories entirely.