American Political Science Review


Enhancing the Validity and Cross-Cultural Comparability of Measurement in Survey Research

a1 Harvard University
a2 World Health Organization


We address two long-standing survey research problems: measuring complicated concepts, such as political freedom and efficacy, that researchers define best with reference to examples; and what to do when respondents interpret identical questions in different ways. Scholars have long addressed these problems with approaches to reduce incomparability, such as writing more concrete questions—with uneven success. Our alternative is to measure directly response category incomparability and to correct for it. We measure incomparability via respondents' assessments, on the same scale as the self-assessments to be corrected, of hypothetical individuals described in short vignettes. Because the actual (but not necessarily reported) levels of the vignettes are invariant over respondents, variability in vignette answers reveals incomparability. Our corrections require either simple recodes or a statistical model designed to save survey administration costs. With analysis, simulations, and cross-national surveys, we show how response incomparability can drastically mislead survey researchers and how our approach can alleviate this problem.

c1 David Florence Professor of Government, Harvard University, Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences, Cambridge MA 02138. (http://GKing.Harvard.Edu, King@Harvard.Edu).
c2 Executive Director, Evidence and Information for Policy, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland (
c3 Assistant Professor of International Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Center for Population and Development Studies, Cambridge, MA (
c4 Health Economist, Evidence and Information for Policy, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland (