Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 43, Issue 2, pp 315–325 | Cite as

How to Fail a Scale: Reflections on a Failed Attempt to Assess Resilience

  • Emily MendenhallEmail author
  • Andrew Wooyoung Kim
Circumstantial Deliveries


How we interpret concepts from suffering to survival has been historically debated in the field of anthropology, transcultural psychiatry, and global mental health. These debates have centered on the notion that such concepts are cross-culturally reproducible, although scholars who work the boundaries of culture, medicine, and psychiatry often triangulate methods from internationally standardized scales to various interpretive methods from participant observation to narrative. This article considers resilience, as opposed to suffering, as the subject of a reproducible entity by discussing the failure of an attempt to capture resilience via an internationally reputed scale called the “Resilience Scale for Adults” among cancer patients in urban South Africa. Our effort to utilize the internationally validated scale, and our attempt to draw on ethnographic and interview work to translate this scale to a locally relevant entity failed due to linguistic, cultural, and practical issues. In brief, the attempt failed because our resilience scale was too long, syntactically ambiguous, and culturally inappropriate. We write this article to spur a larger conversation about evaluating resilience from scale to ethnography, and how the concept and measurement of resilience might figure into fields of anthropology and medicine.


Anthropology Resilience Psychometric measurement 



This field methods paper was prepared with the financial support of the Provost Office and SFS Dean’s Office from Georgetown University. The second author was supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest



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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Walsh School of Foreign ServiceGeorgetown UniversityWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Medical Research Council/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit, Department of Pediatrics, Faculty of Health SciencesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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