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The Personal Wellbeing Index in the South African IsiXhosa Translation: A Qualitative Focus Group Study


International scholars who rely on the Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI) to compare cross-cultural quality of life have often been confronted with the problems of nuances getting ‘lost in translation’. This qualitative study explored the meaning of the isiXhosa version of the PWI in focus group discussions with native speakers. Participants in the study discussed how they understood and rated their lives on each item in the index. The discourse conveyed the different shades of meaning associated with the PWI items of life satisfaction and eight domains of life. The study found that PWI items related to material well-being, living standards, achievements in life and future (financial) security were best understood. The PWI items referring to personal relationships and community connectedness were seen as nearly identical in meaning. Both translation and cultural factors may be responsible for the conflation of these two items. Noteworthy is that the PWI item on religion and spirituality was seen to embrace both Christian and traditional African beliefs and practice, without prejudice. A new item on daily activities was piloted with good results. The focus group study also showcased the manner in which discussants worked with the rating scale and drew on social comparisons when evaluating global and domain satisfactions. It is concluded that cognitive testing of PWI items in different translations will serve not only to appraise the validity of PWI ratings across cultures, but importantly also opens a window on what makes for a life of quality in a particular social setting.

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  1. 1.

    The scale used in the 2012 SASAS survey and our focus group study conformed with the International Wellbeing Group guidelines at the time. The original bipolar response scale has since been replaced with a unipolar response scale and the end-anchors are now defined as ‘no satisfaction at all’ and ‘completely satisfied’ as set out in the latest 2013 guidelines (International Wellbeing Group 2013).

  2. 2.

    The PWI is not seen as a static device but one that evolves as new data and theory becomes available. Changes to the index are determined by members of the International Wellbeing Group (2013). Our focus group study covered domains in the group’s recognised version at 2012 that included the domain of religion/spirituality (Tiliouine et al. 2009; Webb 2009; Wills 2009). The original PWI comprised seven core domains. Religion/spirituality was added as an eighth core domain in 2006. In 2013, the PWI reverted to the original version and religion/spirituality became an optional domain to be added at researchers’ discretion in regions where religion plays an important role in society. The domain ‘daily activities’ was included for the first time in the 2012 SASAS survey. It has not been accepted as either an optional or a core domain at the time of writing in 2014.

  3. 3.

    The South African version of the PWI used in the SASAS surveys has specified that the item on future security is of a financial nature to distinguish it from personal safety and security in a country that has a very high crime rate.

  4. 4.

    Young men in their late teens are circumcised in a coming-of-age ritual among the isiXhosa.

  5. 5.

    Over 3 million government-subsidised houses, so-called RDP houses, have been provided for low-income households since 1994 through the Reconstruction and Development Programme. The poor quality of RDP housing construction is a countrywide complaint. In the Grahamstown township from which study participants were recruited, a 2007 household survey found that over half of householders reported flooding of their houses and 42 % a leaking roof. RDP houses were more likely to have been flooded than other houses (53 vs. 36 %) (Møller & Radloff 2010, p. 58).

  6. 6.

    The ruling African National Congress (ANC) government finally approved a youth wage subsidy in 2014. Approval had been delayed for several years owing to lack of support from the ANC’s trade union alliance partners who argued that older workers stood to lose their jobs if the grant were introduced.

  7. 7.

    Every year scores of young men lose their lives in botched circumcisions carried out in the Eastern Cape, even though the province’s circumcision schools have been regulated since 2001. In 2013, thirty initiates died in the Eastern Cape during the summer initiation season (Makinana 2013).

  8. 8.

    Daily activities were not discussed by the youth who participated in the first focus group session conducted for the study.

  9. 9.

    Although the youth group joked about this comparison, many quality-of-life studies note the importance of food consumption. Camfield (2010) reports that Ethiopian children in her study defined their poverty status according to the number of meals they consumed a day. The Euromodule (Delhey et al. 2002) includes an item on a cooked meal each day in its list of perceived basic necessities for a decent standard of living. Similarly, Noble and Wright (2013) identified a daily intake of meat, fish or vegetable equivalent as one of the socially perceived necessities of life for South Africans. Several waves of the South African Quality of Life trends study found that quality and quantity of food consumed (‘the food you eat’) made a significant contribution to the personal well-being of South Africans (Møller 1998).

  10. 10.

    The low scores on personal relationships by youth are from a second round of scores produced for a different translation that connoted a more intimate type of personal relationship, e.g. with boy- or girl-friends.


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The study was conducted with generous incentive funding from the South African National Research Foundation (NRF), Grant 85343, as part of the cooperative research programme on Quality of Life in South African and Algeria: A Multi-Method Approach (NRF Grant UID 77926). Views expressed are those of the researchers and should not be attributed to the NRF or others.

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Correspondence to Valerie Møller.



See Table 4.

Table 4 Sample characteristics

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Møller, V., Roberts, B. & Zani, D. The Personal Wellbeing Index in the South African IsiXhosa Translation: A Qualitative Focus Group Study. Soc Indic Res 124, 835–862 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-014-0820-6

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  • Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI)
  • Focus group discussions of meanings
  • Cross-cultural quality of life
  • Cognitive testing
  • Second-level deconstruction of life satisfaction