Maximizing Cultural Awareness: Possible Implications for Vocational Assessment

By Michelle C. Gates

In the practice of career counseling, objective vocational assessments, like the Strong Interest Inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, are indispensable tools.  Using these instruments allows us to quickly and systematically gather information about our clients' skills, interests, and personal styles.  When using these instruments with clients from non-dominant cultures, however, conscious effort should be taken to maximize the cultural validity of the assessment.  That means asking questions like "Were my client's demographic characteristics represented in the norm sample for this instrument?" and "Is it possible to give my client an assessment in the language for which he/she possesses the highest level of mastery?"  Intuitively, it makes sense that addressing issues like these improves the cultural validity of the assessment results.  Current thinking and research, however, suggest that there may be another question we should be asking ourselves, namely "Am I administering this instrument in the most culturally appropriate way?"

The line of thought that leads to this suggestion begins with a concept called self-construal, which refers to the way in which a person defines the self in relation to others.  European Americans tend to have an independent self-construal, defining the self as separate from others and consistent across social roles and situations.  Asian Americans and Latino(a)s tend to have an interdependent self-construal, in which the self is interconnected with significant others and social groups.  The interdependent self is fluid and flexible depending on the situation.  Researchers have found that someone with an interdependent self will describe himself or herself differently when asked to do so in different contexts.  In light of this, it stands to reason that this same phenomenon might occur with vocational interests as well (as measured by the Strong Interest Inventory and other interest scales).  That is to say, the measured interests of individuals with highly interdependent selves, such as many Asian Americans and Latino(a)s, might actually be different when measured in different contexts or settings.  In August, I will begin a research study that is designed to answer this very question.

  In this study, I will ask 100 employed undergraduate students (who vary in terms of self-construal) to complete the paper-and-pencil Strong Interest Inventory three times: once in a classroom on campus, once at their place of residence, and once at their place of employment. Based on previous research, I expect that greater interdependence will be associated with less consistent assessment results across the three administrations.  If this does in fact occur, then that will suggest that measuring the interests of people with interdependent selves will indeed yield different results depending on the context or setting of the assessment administration.

At this point you might be thinking, "If people with interdependent selves, such as many Asian Americans and Latino(a)s, report different interests depending on the situation, then how can we ever know their true interests?"  Because of the fluid and context-dependent nature of the interdependent self, however, these individuals don't have one "true" set of interests.  The interests that the students in my study will report when assessed at home will be just as "true" as those they will report when assessed at work.  The real question is: "Which of these sets of interests are the most useful for vocational purposes like choosing a college major or identifying a career path?"       

Previous research with both Mexican American and Asian American students has yielded weak or nonexistent relationships between occupational interests and self-reported career aspirations.  In these studies, however, interests have been measured primarily by one method: students filling out interest inventories as part of a large group on their university or high school campus.  If my study provides evidence for the variability of interest indications based on assessment context, then it will provide an explanation for this seeming lack of relationship between occupational interests and career choices in students with interdependent selves.  From there the next step would be to find out what administration context provides the most vocationally-relevant measured interests.  Although the study that I will conduct will not be able to answer this question, it will lay the needed groundwork to determine if differentially assessing clients with regard to administration context can improve the validity of the test results and therefore the overall quality of the services provided to clients such as Asian Americans and Latino(a)s who tend to have interdependent self-construals.         

Michelle C. Gates, BA is a counseling psychology doctoral student at Texas Tech University.  Her main research interest is the impact of cultural factors on the validity and ethical use of psychological theories and assessment instruments.  She is the 2009 Graduate Student Research Mentor Grant Award Winner*.  She can be contacted at michelle.gates@ttu.edu

* Note About the RESEARCH AWARDS

Each year, NCDA presents research grants to graduate students who are conducting research in the area of career development. The grants are funded through sponsorship donations. Applications receive a blind review by members of the NCDA Research Committee. These awards have been established to honor graduate students who undertake exemplary research addressing topics related to career information, career development, and career planning. These awards are for work on a doctoral dissertation or master's thesis approved by the student's institution, which may or may not be completed at the time of application. The student's dissertation/thesis advisor must endorse the award application in writing. Relevance, significance, and research design will be given primary attention in determining the award recipients.  Winners are honored at the NCDA Awards Luncheon at the annual conference.

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