Exploring bias in the South African context

Bias in psychometric studies in South Africa

Sumaya Laher

Psychology – School of Human and Community Development, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS, 2050



The Employment Equity Act (Government Gazette, 1998) stipulates that all psychological tests used in South Africa should be reliable, valid and unbiased. Establishing the reliability and validity of psychological tests is fairly standard. However the examination of bias is more complex. While there is agreement on the empirical and qualitative methods used to examine bias, the actual groupings on whom bias should be explored is debatable in the South African context. Studies rarely justify the groupings used. Also psychometric studies often claim the cross-cultural applicability of instruments after examining reliability, validity and bias but do not adequately explain the terms ‘culture’ or ‘cross-cultural.’ This paper defines bias and provides some reflection on best practices for psychometric studies wanting to explore bias.


Keywords:  Acculturation; Bias; Culture; Cross-cultural; Gender; Language; Race



The history of South Africa is a chequered one characterised by ethnic and racial interaction, integration, and conflict (Heuchert, Parker, Stumpf & Myburgh, 2000). The tribal groups that occupied the area prior to the arrival of White settlers in 1650 followed patterns of merging and splitting that were similar to most other parts of the world. Some groups were formed voluntarily and others by conquest and subjugation. In 1652 the ancestors of the Afrikaans-speaking South Africans arrived. These were primarily of Dutch ancestry and later German and French ancestry. Slaves from the former Dutch colonies in the East (mainly Malaysia) were also brought to the Cape at this time. Although the slaves spoke the same language (Afrikaans) as the White settlers, after 1948 they were separated into two groups based on skin colour – White Afrikaners and Coloured/brown Afrikaaners. The other main White group in South Africa consisted of the English-speaking White South Africans who arrived in the early 1800’s with the aim of ‘settling the frontier’ (Heuchert, et al, 2000, p.113).


In the 1860’s British settlers recruited indentured labourers from India primarily to man the sugar, tea and coffee plantations in the Natal region. These labourers were promised good wages and the right to settle as free men after five years. The failure to implement the freedom policies for Indians led to Ghandhi forming the Natal Indian Congress, the first mass political organisation in South Africa. At the same time members of the Indian merchant class also came to South Africa and were instrumental in setting up trade in the then Transvaal region of South Africa. Even though this merchant class had more freedom than the indentured Indian labourers and Malaysian slaves, they were still regarded as an inferior group by the Whites. Together with the native South African tribes, the Coloureds and Indians were classed as a Black group. Although relationships between the White Afrikaaners and the White English-speaking South Africans were tense so much so that two wars were fought between the two groups, they were united in their efforts to subjugate Black South Africans (Heuchert, et al, 2000).


In 1948, the National Party which was the dominant political party at the time, instituted a formal system of racial segregation called apartheid. Apartheid ensured the reservation of social, economic and political privilege for White South Africans while Black South Africans were denied access to basic needs, opportunities and freedom. This divide-and-rule tactic also created further social stratification within the Black group. South African Indians particularly the merchant classes held a higher socioeconomic status, followed by Coloureds and the group most discriminated against were the indigenous African tribal groups. While opportunities and freedom for Indians and Coloureds were curtailed, these groups had better access to infrastructure and basic needs like water, electricity and housing whereas the indigenous groups were denied even this. Indigenous African groups were forced and encouraged to accept a tribal identity by separating and removing people to rural ‘homelands’, e.g. Bophuthatswana, Venda, and Transkei. Urban people were separated by race and forced to live in separate residential areas. Urban residential areas for indigenous Africans were too small with little or no infrastructure resulting in even further oppression of the masses in South Africa (Heuchert, et al, 2000).


Job preference was given for White individuals and a policy of job reservation that ensured employment for all Whites was put into place. Psychometric testing and psychological assessment was misused to justify this. Tests that were developed and standardised on educated White South Africans were administered to illiterate, uneducated or poorly educated Black South Africans and these were used as a basis to justify job reservation and preference. It was also used to indicate the superiority of the White intellect over the Black intellect and further justify apartheid. This resulted in a general mistrust of psychological assessment and more specifically psychometric testing amongst the Black groupings in South Africa (Foxcroft & Roodt, 2005; Nzimande, 1995; Sehlapelo & Terreblanche, 1996).


Post-1994, following a peaceful transition and the advent of democracy, the government made attempts to firstly redress the more basic and structural inequalities that were in place for the previous 45 years. The provision of basic services and housing has always remained a top priority. The country also developed one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world that upholds human rights, promotes freedom and ensures that never again will any individual or group of individuals be subjected to a system as vile as apartheid. Laws were promulgated to support this most notably the Employment Equity Act (Government Gazette, 1998).


The Employment Equity Act (Government Gazette, 1998) was specifically promulgated to recognise that as a result of apartheid and other discriminatory laws and practices, there are disparities in employment, occupation and income in the labour market and that these disparities create such pronounced disadvantages for certain categories of people that they cannot be addressed by simply repealing discriminatory laws. Hence the Act proposes a number of actions most notably that of affirmative action to address the broader inequalities that exist in the workplace in South Africa. The Employment Equity Act (Government Gazette, 1998) also states that all psychological instruments should be reliable, valid, unbiased and fair for all groups in South Africa.


Examining the reliability and validity of psychological instruments in the South African context is fairly easy. There are standard empirical procedures like Cronbach alpha or Kuder-Richardson coefficients, factor analysis and interscale correlations which are easily calculated. However given the history of South Africa, the exploration of bias is not only fundamental but also involves more intricate arguments. This article introduces one briefly to the theoretical concepts associated with bias. Following this the debates associated with examining bias in the South African context are outlined. Thus, debates on culture as well as the relationship between culture and its exploration and operationalisation in the South African context are discussed. The paper then argues for the groupings (gender, population group and home language) chosen to examine bias. The paper concludes with some discussion on acculturation.



According to Murphy and Davidshofer (2005), bias is said to exist when a test makes systematic errors in measurement or prediction. Bias is a statistical concept and can therefore be defined empirically and its existence determined scientifically. By examining test data one can determine the extent to which a test provides biased measures. Bias exists in a test if the testing procedure is unfair to a group of individuals who can be defined in some way (Moerdyk, 2009). However the most influential definitions and methods of examining bias come from the work of Poortinga (1989), Van de Vijver and Leung (1997), Van de Vijver and Tanzer (1997) and Poortinga, Van de Vijver and Van Hemert (2002). Poortinga (1989) defines bias as the presence of nuisance factors (unwanted but systematic sources of variation) in cross-cultural measurement. According to Van de Vijver and Tanzer (1997), bias occurs when score differences in indicators of a particular construct do not correspond with differences in the underlying trait or ability. It has to do with the characteristics of an instrument in a specific cross-cultural comparison rather than with its intrinsic properties (Van de Vijver & Tanzer, 1997). Van de Vijver and Leung (1997) proposed a taxonomy of bias consisting of three types, namely construct bias, method bias and item bias.


Construct bias occurs when the construct measured is not identical across groups. Van de Vijver and Poortinga (1997) and Van de Vijver and Tanzer (1997) cite a number of sources under construct bias as evidenced in Table 1. A partial overlap in the definitions of the construct across cultures is cited as one source of bias. An example of this can be found in Teferi’s (2004) study which focussed on translating and adapting the NEO-PI-R for the Eritrean culture. He found that the manner in which Excitement-Seeking was conceptualised in the NEO-PI-R differed from how it would be conceptualised in Eritrea. Aside from being a war torn country, Eritreans are generally quite placid people who would view a picnic at the Riviera as exciting. This is not the same degree of Excitement Seeking as one would find in Las Vegas or riding on a roller coaster as proposed in the NEO-PI-R.




Method bias refers to all sources of bias originating from the method and procedure of a study including factors such as sample incomparability, instrument differences, tester and interviewer effects, and the mode of administration (Van de Vijver & Leung, 1997; Van de Vijver & Poortinga, 1997; Van de Vijver & Tanzer, 1997). Thus three types of method bias can be distinguished, namely sample bias, administration bias and instrument bias. Sample bias refers to confounding sample differences which impact on the responses. For example comparing responses of literate and illiterate people on some instrument can result in systematic differences between the groups due only to their level of literacy or education. Administration bias refers to differences in the procedures or mode employed in administering the instrument. In the previous example using self report questionnaires for the literate group and asking an interviewer to administer the same questionnaire to an illiterate group can create systematic differences between the groups due to the mode of test administration. Finally, instrument bias refers to general features of the instrument that give rise to unintended differences between groups. For example, systematic differences between groups may be due to ways in which specific groups treat Likert scales. Hui and Triandis (1989) found that Hispanics when compared to European Americans were more likely to endorse extreme scores on a 5 point scale but this tendency disappeared when a ten point scale was used. Types and sources of method bias are summarised in Table 1


Table 1 also summarises the main forms of item bias. Item bias is the generic term for all disturbances at item level. An item is biased if respondents with the same standing on an underlying construct, do not have the same mean score on an item. For example a test that has an item requesting the colours of the South African flag would yield more correct responses from South African students than students of any other nationality.


Thus far the discussion on bias has been theoretical and nonspecific. In South Africa however we need to ask ourselves how we actually go about exploring construct, method and item bias. We utilise the same standard empirical techniques as those used internationally. For example factor analyses with Procrustes rotation and congruence coefficients may be employed to explore construct bias by allowing for the comparison of factor matrices of two groups. ANOVA’s may also be used to determine whether significant differences occur at scale or item level across groups to explore construct or item bias respectively. In some cases we rely on qualitative information. In the South African context, given the diversity present, qualitative information is extremely useful. In an assessment setting, qualitative information is often vital. Focus group discussion for example can also yield important information on construct, method or item bias (see Abrahams & Mauer, 1999b; Franklin-Ross, 2009). Thus the types of bias and the methods used to examine them are not disputed but contention arises when we need to examine bias across the groupings in South Africa.


It is generally commonplace in psychometric studies in South Africa to speak about cross-cultural comparisons. This is moreso when issues of bias are being addressed where researchers claim that instruments are fair across cultures in South Africa. However none of these studies address the construct of culture. The term ‘culture’ is nebulous and can mean different things in different contexts. When the term is used in South African research, it either refers to differences between South Africans and those of other nationalities or it refers to differences between the many groupings within South Africa.


These two distinctions are important. We conduct comparisons across groups to consider whether an instrument from one culture is valid in another. In this case the group or culture that is referred to is usually defined by nationality. For example, the NEO-PI-R is an instrument developed in America and standardised on Americans. We then examine the instrument’s validity most notably its construct validity in a South African culture but we also need to explore whether the NEO-PI-R is unbiased in a South African context.


When it comes to issues of bias, the question is whether the instrument can be used for all South Africans fairly. At the start of the paper I referred to the cultural diversity present in South Africa and the fact that in the past instruments were differentially created and utilised based on previous policies of inequality and oppression where certain groups were given preference over others. Hence South Africa legislation insists that all instruments be unbiased against any employee or group (Section 8, Employment Equity Act, Government Gazette, 1998). In order for an instrument to be unbiased in the South African context, it needs to be demonstrated that no group is being discriminated against but the challenge is to define the groupings. In the discussion to follow, I address these two issues, namely the definition of the terms culture and cross-cultural, as well as my proposals for defining the groupings to be used to examine bias in the South African context.



Culture is a difficult concept to define formally. It can mean different things to different people depending on individual backgrounds and individual contexts. Social anthropologists contributed the earliest definitions of culture. In 1871, Tylor defined culture as ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’(cited in Berry, et. al., 2004, p. 165). A shorter definition that was widely used at the time, was proposed in 1948 by the anthropologist Herskovitz, who stated that ‘culture is the man-made part of the environment’ (cited in Segall, Lonner & Berry, 1998, p. 1102). By the 1950’s though, definitions of culture abounded, so much so that Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) were able to place definitions into six major classes, i.e. those definitions that were descriptive, historical, normative, psychological, structural or genetic. Based on their review, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) proposed that ‘culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts’ (cited in Berry, et. al., 2004, p. 166).


In Hofstede and McCrae (2004), Hofstede’s definition of culture is cited where culture is defined as ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one group or category of people from another’ (p.58). Hofstede and McCrae (2004) elaborate further that culture is a collective and not an individual attribute. Culture is not directly visible but is rather manifested in behaviours and culture is common to some but not all people. More recently culture has been defined ‘a unique meaning and information system, shared by a group and transmitted across generations, that allows the group to meet basic needs of survival, coordinate socially to achieve a viable existence, transmit social behaviour, pursue happiness and well-being, and derive meaning from life’ (Matsumoto, 2007, p. 14).


None of these definitions operationalise culture though. When both local and international studies claim to be making cross-cultural claims, all they are in fact doing is equating culture with nationality, ethnicity and/or religious belief. For example, Cheung and colleagues compare the CPAI-2 factor solutions across Chinese, Singaporean Chinese and Caucasian samples  (Cheung, Cheung, Leung, Ward & Leong, 2003) as well as comparisons on Singaporean Chinese, Singaporean Malay and Singaporean Indian samples (Cheung, Cheung, Howard & Lim, 2006) to make conclusions about the cross-cultural applicability of the instrument. It is possible to deduce that Cheung and colleagues are defining culture based on nationality and ethnicity.


This assumption of equating culture with nationality or ethnicity is common. Bock (2000) has called this fallacy the uniformity assumption and Fiske (2002) reports that most researchers evade defining culture often choosing to simply equate culture with nationality. Further evidence for this comes from the number of published cross-cultural studies that claim to be exploring the cross-cultural applicability of an instrument but which only proceed to consider whether the factor structure or some other psychometric property of the instrument can be replicated across nationality (see Cheung & Rensvold, 2000; McCrae & Costa, 2008a; McCrae et al, 2005a; Paunonen, Zeidner, Engvik, Oosterveld, Maliphant, 2000). Dalton, Elias and Wanderman (2002) argue that the term culture has been applied to include nation-states, ethnic and religious groups, and even schools and corporations. Segall, et al (1998) argue that definitions of culture abound but that the most meaningful way to grasp culture is to consider how it is conceptualised in the research, i.e. to grasp its operational definition. Thus,

‘Culture is used as a label for a group within a set of groups (e.g., groups constituting nationalities resident in different parts of the world or ethnic groups, often of varying national origins, living within a multicultural society) being compared on some behavioural dimension. As such, the term is an overarching label for a set of contextual variables (political, social, historical, ecological, etc.) that are thought by the researcher to be theoretically linked to the development and display of a particular behaviour’ (Segall, et al., 1998, p. 1105).


In essence then this section has argued that in all research, whether it be internationally or in the South African context, making claims about the cross cultural utility of an instrument is difficult since the concepts of culture and cross cultural are nebulous and very context dependent. This issue is particularly salient when examining issues of bias since one will need to determine across which cultural groups bias will be examined. Thus this study is in agreement with Segall, et al’s (1998) proposal which suggests that the operationalisation of culture will define what culture means in a particular study.



In the South African context, the variables of population group and home language are often used as operationalisations for the major cultural groupings in South Africa. However it is debatable whether these groupings necessarily represent valid categories of classification for the cultural diversity within South Africa or if the use of these categories perpetuate a past mindset where the previous political regime ensured that the population was divided on the basis of race, religion and language. These categories are however in keeping with international trends in cross-cultural research where culture is operationalised using either religion, nationality or ethnicity as evidenced in studies in recent editions of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology and the Journal of Personality. Since ethnicity is difficult to define or identify in the diverse South African culture, the best way to explore ethnicity is via the variables of population group and home language. This method of operationalising cultural groupings correspond to those examined in recent personality research in South Africa (see Abrahams, 1996; Abrahams & Mauer, 1999a; 1999b; Meiring, van de Vijver, Rothmann & Barrick, 2005; Meiring, van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2006; Nel, 2008; Taylor, 2004; Van Eeden, 2007; Vogt & Laher, 2009).


However a more convincing argument for exploring bias in these two variable groupings comes yet again from South African legislation. In order to promote ‘the constitutional right of equality and the exercise of true democracy; to eliminate unfair discrimination in employment; to ensure the implementation of employment equity to redress the effects of discrimination; and to achieve a diverse workforce broadly representative of the South African people’ amongst other things, the Employment Equity Act (1998, p.1) proposed affirmative action in Chapter 3 of the Act. According to the Employment Equity Act, ‘affirmative action measures are measures designed to ensure that suitably qualified people from designated groups have equal employment opportunities and are equitably represented in all occupational categories and levels in the workforce of a designated employer’ (p.9). Designated groups are defined in the Employment Equity Act as ‘black people, women and people with disabilities’ (p.3) where black people ‘is a generic term which means Africans, Coloureds, Indians’ (p.3). Thus from the Employment Equity Act it is evident that by law psychometric studies should be assessing issues of bias and in assessing bias one should consider bias across gender groupings as well as across population groupings.


Given that the overwhelming majority of South Africans (91.8% of the population) speak English as a second language (StatsSA, 2009), most employers often ask that future employees are fluent in another South African language other than English so as to be able to better assist clients. Furthermore, a number of job applicants from the designated groups will in all likelihood not have English as their first language. South African research has consistently demonstrated how taking a test in a language that is not one’s first language can impact on test results (see Abrahams, 1996, 2002; Abrahams & Mauer, 1999a, 1999b; Bedell, Van Eeden & Van Staden, 1999; Foxcroft, 2004; Franklin-Ross, 2009; Heaven & Pretorius, 1998; Heuchert, et al, 2000; Meiring, Van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2006; Nel, 2008; Nell, 1999; Taylor, 2000; Taylor, 2004; Van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2004; van Eeden, 2007; Vogt & Laher, 2009). Thus it becomes salient that bias across home language groupings also be examined.


It may be argued though that in a number of studies ancestry and culture are confounded therefore studies on acculturation are needed (McCrae et al, 2005b). This is moreso in the African and South African context where ‘politically liberated, Africans are now challenged by the opportunities and risks of modern technology and, above all, by the fast pace of worldwide transformation and change’ (Okeke, Draguns, Sheku & Allen, 1999, 240). This increasing tendency towards acculturation was also identified as a confounding variable in Heuchert, et al (2000).



Thus a final issue for consideration particularly in line with the arguments proposed by Okeke, et al (1999) and Heuchert et al (2000) is that of acculturation. Acculturation may be defined as ‘those phenomena which result in individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups’ (Redfield, Linton and Herskovits, 1936 cited in van de Vijver & Phalet, 2004, p. 216). This becomes more salient in psychometric studies in the South African context which often rely on student samples.


Van Dyk and De Kock (2004) argued with regards to student samples in South Africa that student populations tend to be more individualist in nature, due in part to their shared exposure to similar education. In support of this view Oyserman, Coon and Kemmelmeier (2002) have argued that the demands of an academic environment fosters individualism, since the focus is on individual striving, competition and the realisation of one’s potential. Eaten and Louw (2000) argue that acculturation, which can be occurring at both the individual and community level, could be influencing the extent to which cultural differences are expressed or even in fact exist. Mpofu (2001) has spoken of what is referred to as the “African modernity trend” which represents a shift toward Western Individualism. This ideological shift has been greatly influenced by Africa’s participation in the global economy where Western, free-market economies emphasize individualist values. Studies of acculturation have shown that overt behaviours become oriented to those of the dominant culture, but that the “invisible” elements of the individual’s traditional culture remains intact (Mpofu, 2001).


Van de Vijver and Phalet (2004) argue that Mpofu’s (2001) understanding of acculturation is unidimensional and cite the bidimensional model proposed by Berry and Sam (1997) as a better conceptualisation of acculturation. In this model, Berry and Sam (1997) propose that individuals asks two questions: one pertaining to whether one wants to establish a good relationship with the host culture (adaptation dimension) and the other as to whether one wants to maintain a good relationships with ones native culture (cultural maintenance). The answers to these questions lead to four types of acculturation, namely, integration, separation, assimilation and marginalisation, as indicated in Table 2.



Evidence that acculturation may be operating in the South African context comes from studies conducted on the NEO-PI-R. If the results of studies conducted in South Africa on student samples from 1994 are compared across the years to the present time (see Heaven & Pretorius, 1994; Heuchert et al, 2000; Matsimbi, 1997; Laher, 2010; Quy, 2010, Zhang & Akande, 2002), it appears that the FFM is becoming more replicable in a South African context suggesting that acculturation might be operational. South Africa is no longer isolated from the world. It is very much part of a digitized, globalised society. However it is still a hugely unequal society with majority of the country still not having access to resources, opportunities, employment and education. Arguments for a first and second economy in South Africa hold. Although it is still the nonwhite group that are the majority victims of this lack of opportunity, there is a growing middle and upper class amongst the nonwhite group. The sample in this study comes primarily from this group and by virtue of receiving a Western education and continuous exposure to Western media and technology it can be argued that this group represents a more acculturated group which produces results similar to those found in Western samples. Thus it is essential for all studies examining the utility of instruments in the South African context to keep issues of acculturation in mind. It might be useful for future studies to incorporate measures of acculturation routinely into the studies.



This paper presented a brief description and discussion of the theoretical issues relating to bias. Following this, the paper addressed some of the most salient debates around the definition and operationalisation of culture in psychometric studies of bias. Finally acculturation was briefly addressed.


It is suggested that future research take particular care when using the terms cultural and cross-cultural to make claims about their research. Furthermore the paper calls for researchers’ to be more explicit about the rationale behind their choice of selecting groupings and to desist from overstating their claims. This is of particular salience in psychometric studies of bias. I have made the suggestion to use gender, population group and home language as standard grouping variables to be explored in studies of bias. At the same time I have presented arguments which indicated that acculturation might be operational in a number of studies conducted in South Africa especially those conducted on university students. Hence I suggest that socio-economic status, home language, language proficiency and test wiseness together with measures of acculturation might be a better indicator of the groupings in South Africa. Further research is warranted.


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Table 4.1 Sources of the three types of bias

(Adapted from Van de Vijver & Poortinga, 1997, p.26; Van de Vijver & Tanzer, 1997, p.124)


Type of   bias Sources of   bias
Construct   bias Incomplete overlap of definitions of   the construct across cultures.

Differential appropriateness of   (sub)test content

Poor sampling of all relevant   bahaviours (eg. Short instruments)

Incomplete coverage of all relevant   aspects/facets of the construct (eg., not all relevant domains are sampled)

Method bias Differential response styles such as   extremity scoring, social desirability or acquiescence

Differential stimulus familiarity

Lack of comparability of samples (eg   differences in educational background, motivation, age, or gender composition)

Differences in environmental   administration conditions – physical (eg recording devices) or social (eg   class size)

Differential familiarity with   response procedures, eg. Ambiguous instructions and/or guidelines for   administrators

Tester / interviewer / observer   effects, eg. Differential expertise of administrators

Communication problems between   respondent and tester/interviewer in either cultural group, eg. Ambiguous   instructions for respondents, interpreter problems, taboo topics

Item bias Poor item translation

Ambiguous items

Inadequate item formulation (eg.,   complex wording)

Cultural specifics (eg. Incidental   differences in connotative meaning and/or appropriateness of item content)

Incidental differences in   appropriateness of item content (eg. Topic of item in educational test not in   curriculum in one cultural group)

Nuisance factors, (eg., Item/s may   invoke additional traits or abilities)




Table 2: Bidimensional model of acculturation (Adapted from Van de Vijver & Phalet, 2002, p. 218)


  CULTURAL   MAINTENANCE (Do   I want to establish good relations with the host culture?)
ADAPTATION (Do I want to maintain   good relationships with my culture of origin?)   YES NO