Buros-Nebraska Series on Measurement and Testing


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Published in Multicultural Assessment in Counseling and Clinical Psychology, edited by Gargi Roysircar Sadowsky and James C. Impara (Lincoln, NE: Buros Institute of Mental Measurements, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 1996).


Copyright © 1996 by Buros Institute of Mental Measurements. Digital edition copyright © 2012 Buros Center for Testing.


In the 1970s, as an offshoot of the civil rights movements of that era, applied psychologists began to grapple with the issues of how to measure racial and ethnic identity. Given the increased emphasis on improving the life circumstances of disenfranchised peoples in the United States, practitioners and applied social and behavioral scientists sought pragmatic strategies for determining how best to intervene in the environments primarily of peoples of color in order to contribute to positive mental health outcomes for them as well as society more inclusively (Sue, 1992).

However, as Helms (1990a) noted, the sophistication of theoretical models and formulations used to explain the psychological effects of being socialized in racially oppressed and culturally distinct social groups far out-shipped efforts to develop strategies for assessing the relevant psychological aspects of racism and ethnocentrism. Thus, in her overviews of existing theoretical models that purported to address aspects of racial or ethnic identity, Helms (1990a, 1990b) located 11 models for African Americans, six for White Americans, two for Asian Americans, two for Latino/Hispanic Americans, and four for Native Americans. She also noted that some of the theorists that she reviewed considered that they had developed models of "ethnic" or "cultural" identity, whereas others contended that they had developed models of "racial" identity, although each seemed to be addressing aspects of the same societal dynamics of in-group/out-group oppression. In general, it seemed to be the case that theorists who believed that their own discomfort with race or ethnicity was due to racism and the resulting racial discord developed theories of racial identity, whereas theorists who felt that their societal disempowerment was due to cultural mismatch of some sort developed theories of ethnic identity.

However, problems with this language of convenience are that it helped to perpetuate the imprecision in terminology in psychological research when matters of race, ethnicity, or culture are discussed. Furthermore, such imprecise usage makes it difficult to operationally define any of the relevant constructs. Consequently, Helms (1994a, 1994b) recommended that identity models be considered "racial" models if they describe reactions to societal dynamics of "racial" oppression (i.e., domination or subjugation based on racial or ethnic physical characteristics commonly assumed to be racial or genetic in nature). She suggested that identity models be considered "ethnic" models if acquisition or maintenance of cultural characteristics (e.g., language, religious expression) are defining principles.