Cultural Equivalence

It is not uncommon for assessment tools to obtain unintended and unwanted sources of variance—or cultural bias—that lead to test results that are not easy to accurately interpret across cultures. Cultural equivalencies reflect a body of research methods that can be used to minimize cultural bias and measurement error in the development and/or adaptation of assessment tools. More specifically, conceptual, content, linguistic, technical, and normative equivalencies are five established dimensions of cultural equivalence that are used to minimize measurement error in cross-cultural applications.

  1. Conceptual Equivalency. Conceptual equivalency examines the extent to which a construct has a similar nature and meaning when applied in a different cultural context. For example, does the notion of “self” mean the same thing in British culture as it does in Ghanaian culture? Ethnosemantic procedures can be used to evaluate conceptual equivalency. This is accomplished by eliciting words that span a specific domain (i.e., self), ordering such words according to predefined dimensions (e.g., good-bad, individual-collective), utilizing word associations to understanding the meaning of such words, and employing direct observations to attach associated behaviors to these words.
  2. Content Equivalency. Content equivalency investigates if the operationalization of the construct is relevant to the population under study. For example, are the best elements used to describe and examine the notion of “personality” the same in Chinese culture as it might be in Native American culture?
  3. Linguistic Equivalency. Linguistic equivalency is mainly concerned with translation accuracy from language A (e.g., English) to language B (e.g., Hindi). Back translation is a commonly used method to establish linguistic equivalency. This involves having a person fluent in both languages translate the original instrument from language A to language B. Next, a second person would take the recently translated instrument in language B and translate it back into language A. A research team would then test to see if the instrument that has undergone back translation is identical to the original instrument.
  4. Technical Equivalency. Technical equivalency is concerned about the cultural appropriateness of the measuring techniques being used with a specific population. This equivalency is concerned with the appropriateness of response formats (True vs. False, Likert Scale, etc.), reading level, cognitive complexity, and any other variables that might lead to significant over-or underreporting. Use of informants, audio/visual aids, and ethnographic methods are some ways that barriers associated with technical equivalency can be minimized.
  5. Normative Equivalency. Norms are important in having a standard so that observations of similarities and deviations can be made for a specific sample population in question. Thus, normative equivalency requires norms to be available for the population being studied. Indices of normative equivalency might include variables like ethnicity, gender, age, educational obtainment, and socioeconomic status to name a few.

Social scientists must be aware of the importance that cultural variables can have in the acquisition of data. While much more work is needed to empirically demonstrate the nature of the aforementioned dimensions of cultural equivalence and/or the identification of new dimensions, the interpretation of results are only as good as the instruments and methodology used to obtain the raw data.


  1. Canino, G., & Bravo, M. (1994). The adaptation and testing of diagnostic and outcome measures for cross-cultural research. International Review of Psychiatry, 6(4), 281-286.
  2. Marsella, A. J., & Leong, F. T. L. (1995). Cross-cultural issues in personality and career assessment. Journal of Career Assessment, 3(2), 202-218.

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