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Ecological effects in multi-level studies
  1. Tony A Blakely,
  2. Alistair J Woodward
  1. Department of Public Health, Wellington School of Medicine, University of Otago, PO Box 7343, Wellington, New Zealand
  1. Dr Blakely (e-mail: tblakely{at}


Multi-level research that attempts to describe ecological effects in themselves (for example, the effect on individual health from living in deprived communities), while also including individual level effects (for example, the effect of personal socioeconomic disadvantage), is now prominent in research on the socioeconomic determinants of health and disease. Such research often involves the application of advanced statistical multi-level methods. It is hypothesised that such research is at risk of reaching beyond an epidemiological understanding of what constitutes an ecological effect, and what sources of error may be influencing any observed ecological effect. This paper aims to present such an epidemiological understanding. Three basic types of ecological effect are described: a direct cross level effect (for example, living in a deprived community directly affects individual personal health), cross level effect modification (for example, living in a deprived community modifies the effect of individual socioeconomic status on individual health), and an indirect cross level effect (for example, living in a deprived community increases the risk of smoking, which in turn affects individual health). Sources of error and weaknesses in study design that may affect estimates of ecological effects include: a lack of variation in the ecological exposure (and health outcome) in the available data; not allowing for intraclass correlation; selection bias; confounding at both the ecological and individual level; misclassification of variables; misclassification of units of analysis and assignment of individuals to those units; model mis-specification; and multicollinearity. Identification of ecological effects requires the minimisation of these sources of error, and a study design that captures sufficient variation in the ecological exposure of interest.

  • multi-level methods
  • ecological research design
  • socioeconomic factors
  • confounding
  • bias
  • effect modifiers
  • causality

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  • Funding: Tony Blakely is funded by a New Zealand Health Research Council Training Fellowship.

  • Conflicts of interest: none.