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Stephen M. Quintana

Designing Culturally Valid Research

Posted on May 22, 2007

Stephen M. Quintana (bio) incorporates the issue of cultural validity into all stages of research process, from conceptual design to analysis and interpretation.


Q: What issues of cultural validity do I need to bear in mind as I begin my research on parenting?
A: A recent special issue of Child Development [77(5)] emphasized research on race, ethnicity, and culture, and in our editorial we mentioned four broad areas that continue to be challenging to the design and conducting of research:

Theoretical challenges
  • Relevance: Developmental research needs to stay current as populations become more diverse. In the past, normative studies generally based their findings on data from Caucasian children, but to continue to be relevant to an ever-changing demographic, we need more normative studies on ethnic and racial minority children. In addition to providing much needed information, such studies can enhance our overall understanding of developmental concepts. Not only do ideas about development differ cross-culturally, but different cultures may have generated their own concepts, which can enhance or potentially even transform what we know about developmental processes.
  • Recognize Underlying Beliefs: Another issue that arises with globalization and immigration is that cultural practices may develop in one particular context, but get implemented in another. For example, immigrants’ parenting practices that were effective in their homeland may not fit well in their adopted country. If we can understand what underlying principles are at work across cultures, it will be easier to investigate how they are expressed within cultures.

The major problem with measuring certain developmental constructs, particularly in regard to larger national survey-type research, is that demographic variables are often used as proxies for sociocultural variables such as racial identity or acculturation. When they use proxies, researchers can make incorrect conclusions. For example, a researcher might conclude that race is directly associated with participation in an after-school program, when in fact, a third variable, such as acculturation, may be at play. Finding (or developing) more direct measurements of sociocultural constructs is a necessary step toward a clearer understanding of development. For example, Kiang, et al., (2006) adapted the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity (Sellers, et al., 1997) so that it could be used by any ethnic group, and were able look at subtle elements of racial identity (e.g. regard for one's own ethnic group, and importance of ethnicity to one's self-esteem).

Considering Cultural Validity

Development occurs in context, therefore, all research on child development should take into account cultural validity. Is it valid for this particular culture? This includes decisions regarding the conceptual model, the hypotheses, recruitment and retention, measurements and protocol, and analysis and interpretation of data:
  • Conceptual Model: Identify possible influences of race, ethnicity, class, etc. on outcomes. For example, does perceived prejudice potentially influence academic performance?
  • Recruitment: Consider factors that might prevent or deter some people from participating. Increase the ease of participation by providing recruitment pamphlets in languages other than English, for example, or provide transportation as needed to the study site.
  • Measurement: In order to avoid underrepresenting the constructs that you are trying to measure, use focus groups or other methods to ensure that concepts as well as individual items translate well across cultures and languages. Examples: ratings or scales can mean different things in different cultures; using English proficiency as a proxy for acculturation narrows the definition of the construct and limits conclusions that can be made about its influence on outcomes.
  • Analysis and Interpretation: Considering cultural validity throughout the research process can make analysis and interpretation of findings easier. But if proxies were used or items on questionnaires were not valid for the particular culture being studied, then meaning of the results is unclear.
Future Topic Areas

While much has been accomplished in the study of race, ethnicity and culture, there are some understudied areas that an early researcher may want to consider exploring:
  • How interracial attitudes influence behavior
  • Development of interracial friendships
  • Attitudes and behaviors among minority groups
  • Development of racial identity in multiracial children
  • Research beyond the traditional family structure



Kiang, L., Yip, T., & Gonzales-Backen, M. (2006). Ethnic identity and the daily psychological well-being of adolescents from Mexican and Chinese backgrounds. Child Development, 77(5), 1338-1350.

Quintana, S., Aboud, F., Chao, R., Contreras-Grau, J., Cross, W., Hudley, C., Hughes, D., Liben, L., Nelson-LeGall, S. & Vietze, D. (2006). Race, ethnicity, and culture in child development: Contemporary research and future directions. Child Development, 77(5), 1129-1141.

Sellers, R., Rowley, S., Chavous, T. (1997). Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity: A preliminary investigation of reliability and construct validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(4), 805-815.


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