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Psychology in Society

versión On-line ISSN 2309-8708
versión impresa ISSN 1015-6046

Psychol. Soc.  no.48 Durban  2015 



Cross-cultural differences in the character strength of citizenship in South Africa



Graham A du PlessisI; Carolina F SaccaggiII; Gideon P de BruinIII

IDepartment of Psychology University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg.
IIDepartment of Psychology University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg.
IIIDepartment of Industrial Psychology and People Management, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg.




The psychological conceptualisation of the character strength of citizenship as a trait ubiquitous across cultures is examined within the context of a diverse South African sample. The theoretically supposed elements common to the definition of citizenship as a dispositional trait (rather than a situational or cultural phenomenon) are examined by means of considering Peterson and Seligman's (2004) conceptualisation of citizenship as espoused in their work on character strength and virtues. Using the Rasch model of item response theory the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP) Value in Action Inventory (VIA) Citizenship scale was examined for fit and differential item functioning (DIF). A diverse sample of 902 South African university students who completed the Citizenship scale was examined for DIF as a function of self-asserted ethnicities and home language groups, which serve as indicators of culture within the South African context. The findings of the study suggest that while certain conceptual aspects of trait-based citizenship as espoused by Peterson and Seligman (2004) are common across the heterogeneous cultures (as defined by ethnicity and language group) examined, there is sound evidence that there are also qualitative distinctions that are exclusively a function of cultural grouping, suggesting difficulties with the exclusive conceptualisation of citizenship as an individual trait. The implications of these findings speak to the importance of considering citizenship as a nuanced and complex notion that requires further consideration in terms of the philosophical, theoretical and empirical qualification of its conceptualisation.

Keywords: citizenship, cross-cultural, Africa, South Africa, character strengths




The concept of citizenship has been debated and discussed by scholars from numerous disciplines, including psychology (Dahlsgaard, Peterson & Seligman, 2005). At the broadest level, citizenship is linked to concepts such as membership and belonging. Although it was initially linked to belonging to a specific nation state, in recent times understandings of citizenship have moved beyond simplistic linkages with nation states to the idea that citizenship can be related to belonging to any grouping (Barnes, Auburn & Lea, 2004; Hamilton, 2009). Within psychology, citizenship has recently been conceptualised as one of the trait like character strengths identified by Peterson and Seligman (2004) and as such forms part of the growing positive psychology movement. This study examined this particular conceptualisation of citizenship within the South African context, making use of Peterson and Seligman's (2004: 13) seminal conceptualisation of citizenship as a trait-like construct that is "ubiquitously recognized and valued". It is acknowledged that despite the prominence of Peterson and Seligman's (2004) conceptualisation of citizenship other, contrasting, notions exist within psychology that view citizenship as being more situationally and culturally, rather than dispositionally, bound (Barnes et al., 2004). These contrasting perspectives on citizenship inform a need for further research into the concept, in order to investigate the utility of the trait-like conceptualisation advanced by Peterson and Seligman (2004). The South African context serves as a particularly relevant cultural context in which to explore the conceptualisation of citizenship as a trait, given the culturally and racially divided nature of the country's history which has resulted in contention regarding the notion of what it means to be a citizen in South Africa (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2003).

In order to position this study within the current body of knowledge concerning citizenship, the concept of citizenship is first discussed from a broad psychological perspective, in order to position the particular trait-like definition of citizenship used in this study within the broader context of psychology. Then, the importance of citizenship within the South African context is discussed. Finally, an argument is made regarding the psychometric measurement of citizenship as a trait, and the relationship between the theoretical characteristic of universality and the psychometric property of measurement invariance. This literature review serves as a backdrop to the empirical study, which investigated the measurement invariance of citizenship in the South African context using the IPIP (International Personality Item Pool) edition of the VIA Citizenship scale (Goldberg et al., 2006).


Defining citizenship from a psychological perspective

At its most fundamental political level the term citizen simply means someone who is a subject of a certain state or nation (Barnes et al., 2004). In this way the word has strong links to the growth of European nation-states and embodies ideas of democracy (Conover, Searing & Crewe, 2004) as well as hegemony. Thus, citizens of a particular country are expected to act in a particular way and to share certain characteristics (Barnes et al., 2004). Citizenship in this sense is bi-directional in that a state is seen as having responsibilities towards its citizens, but citizens are also seen as having responsibilities towards the state (Barnes et al., 2004; Hamilton, 2009). Studies of citizenship from philosophical, sociological and political viewpoints abound (see, for example, Bennet, Wells & Rank, 2009) and the exact conceptualisation of citizenship used within a specific academic discipline is as varied as the academics within that discipline (see Canover et al. [2004] for a discussion of the varied understandings of the concept of citizenship). However, within this study the emphasis is on psychological understandings of citizenship, which focus specifically on citizenship as a sense of responsibility.

It is this sense of citizenship, as involving responsibility, which forms the core of the psychological understandings of citizenship that contribute to the particular conceptual understanding of citizenship investigated in this study. Closely linked to psychological concepts such as social responsibility, loyalty and teamwork (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; McGovern, 2011), from within this perspective citizenship as a psychological construct is viewed as a trait possessed by an individual, rather than as a political status (Barnes et al., 2004). Psychological research using this conceptualisation has thus focused on differentiating the personal characteristics of people who participate in communities (or, in other words, display citizenship behaviours) from people who do not participate (Barnes et al., 2004; McGovern, 2011). Thus, citizenship is understood to be something that resides in an individual and that can be identified based on certain manifest and measurable attributes and behaviours (Barnes et al., 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The most obvious behaviour in this regard is considered to be teamwork (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; McGovern, 2011). Using this trait perspective as a point of departure, Peterson and Seligman (2004) investigated the concept of citizenship from a psychological perspective. Based on extensive research, they provided the following consensual description of a person who demonstrates citizenship: "A strong sense of duty, works for the good of the group rather than for personal gain, is loyal to friends, and can be trusted to pull his or her weight. He or she is a good teammate. A generative spirit and sense of responsibility for the community" (Peterson & Seligman, 2004: 370).

An analysis of this consensual definition suggests that the psychological "trait" of citizenship consists of two distinct aspects, which are both internal to an individual manifesting citizenship. The first of these involves the idea of attitude (Jimenez, 2009) or spirit (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). This refers to a general sense of responsibility towards others and the desire to work for the common good. In this sense, citizenship can be seen as an orientation (Munro, Chilimanzi & O'Neil, 2012). The second aspect of citizenship relates to behaviour and the way in which the individual engages in teamwork and community projects. It is this aspect of psychological citizenship that is frequently researched in the context of the business environment (see, for example, Moorman, 1991; Borman, Penner, Allen & Motowidlo, 2001; LePines, Erez & Johnson, 2002; Borman, 2004; Lievens & Anseel, 2004; Bolino & Turnley, 2005; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005; Diener & Ryan, 2008; Money et al., 2008; Mills, Fleck & Kozikowski, 2013).

The consensual definition detailed above provides the basis for the positioning of citizenship as one of the 24 character strengths identified by Peterson and Seligman (2004). Character strengths are defined as trait-like aspects of human functioning that are measurable, universal and morally valued across cultures (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Dahlsgaard et al., 2005). These character strengths are grouped into six virtues, with citizenship grouped under the virtue of justice, which relates to fair-mindedness and even-handedness (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). From within this conceptualisation citizenship is a trait that resides within an individual, and is not linked to situational or cultural variables.

It should be noted that this focus on citizenship as a trait-like feature has been criticised from social and cross-cultural psychological viewpoints for emphasising the dispositional rather than the situational aspects of citizenship (Barnes et al., 2004). This suggests that this particular conceptualisation of citizenship fails to take into account factors such as group membership and identity, which are core concepts in psychology. Authors such as Barnes et al. (2004), Shotter (1993), Edley (2001) and McDonald and O'Callaghan (2008) have argued that the psychological conceptualisation of citizenship as a trait-like entity needs to be revisited. These authors argue that citizenship needs to be viewed in context, and that the focus on citizenship as a trait downplays the impact of situational, cultural and social aspects on the enactment of citizenship (Barnes et al., 2004). This is a criticism that has also been voiced more generally in relation to the positive psychology movement as a whole, which tends to highlight features related to individuals rather than to groups or societies (Brdar, 2011).

Despite these criticisms, the conceptualisation of citizenship as a trait-like feature possessed by individuals, as opposed to a situationally determined behaviour, is a prominent one within the psychology literature. This trait view of citizenship, and hence its identification as a character strength, forms part of the ongoing positive psychology endeavour to identify and research non-pathological aspects of human functioning (Seligman & Czikszentmihalyi, 2000; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). According to Seligman and Czikszentmihalyi (2000: 5) the aim of the positive psychology movement is to "begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities". As part of this effort to catalyse a change, the positive psychology movement has focused on the generation of empirical research and objective psychometric measures. In the case of citizenship, this empirical thrust relates to the development of the citizenship subscale of the VIA, which is designed to measure the trait of citizenship in accordance with Peterson and Seligman's (2004) theoretical conceptualisation of citizenship. Since its initial development the VIA has been used to facilitate many research projects related to the examination of character strengths, and various studies identify good criterion and construct validity across the scales (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Park & Peterson, 2006; Steger, Hicks, Kashdan, Krueger & Bouchard, 2007). Relatively few studies have reported particularly on citizenship (Ranzjin, 2002; Gillham et al., 2011), with most studies favouring examination of the entire VIA scale (e.g. Hutchinson, Stuart & Pretorius, 2002; Linley et al., 2007; Money et al., 2008; Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2009). One of the central arguments on which the VIA (and therefore the citizenship subscale) is based is the idea that the measured strengths should not display cultural and historical specificity, but instead should display invariance when the same strength construct is measured in the same manner for different groups or individuals (Waiyavutti, Johnson & Deary, 2012).

In summary, psychological notions of citizenship are broad with varying sub-disciplines such as social psychology, cross-cultural psychology and positive psychology using different definitions of citizenship. One of the prominent definitions is based on Peterson and Seligman's (2004) identification of citizenship as a character strength, suggesting that it is a universal trait common to all cultures and historical time periods, and it is this specific conceptualisation that informs the analysis presented here. This conceptualisation has implications in terms of measurement invariance, a concept that is discussed in detail later in this literature review.


The South African context and citizenship

The South African context poses challenges to both political and psychological understandings of citizenship. From a political or sociological perspective, the idea of South Africa as a single nation state containing South African citizens is fraught with difficulties. South Africa is a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multilingual society characterised as much by the differences between the various groupings as by similarities (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2003; Swartz, 2006). Colonial and apartheid legacies have resulted in deep seated divisions within the country that bring into question the very notion of the possibility of a unitary definition of what it means to be South African (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2003). The realities of the struggle against the apartheid state frequently necessitated behaviour, such as rioting and activism, that implicitly denies the (conventional) idea of citizenship (Hamilton, 2009), or at least the rejection of the notion of citizenship in an illegitimate state (Conover et al., 2004; Hamilton, 2009). Indeed, according to Comaroff and Comaroff (2003) the idea of nationhood in South Africa is in constant tension with ideas around multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. This is apparent in one of the many national slogans, the idea of South Africa as a 'rainbow nation', which contains simultaneous (and perhaps contradictory) messages of unity and diversity (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2003). Thus, within the South African context the very notion of citizenship is contested in relation to the way in which citizenship is understood (for example, as a status, as an identity or as a responsibility) and enacted (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2003; Hamilton, 2009).

One of the most enduring divisions within South African society relates to ethnicity, a divide dating back to the colonial and apartheid eras (Glaser, 2010). During the apartheid era ethnicity (commonly referred to as race both by the apartheid government and by the current democratically elected government) was used to define the rights of citizens, with various ethnic (racial) groups being treated in different ways, with the most prominent distinction being drawn between the privileged white ethnic group and the non-privileged non-white ethnic groups. Despite the demise of apartheid in the early 1990s, ethnic classification continues in South Africa and is used as a way to identify specific racial and cultural groups within the country (Roodt, 2009; Glaser, 2010). In modern South African society four distinct ethnic (or race) groups are usually identified (Adams, Van de Vijver & De Bruin, 2012). These groupings are generally referred to as the African (or Black) ethnic group (79.4% of the population), which consists of the nine indigenous Bantu-speaking groups; the Coloured ethnic group (8.8% of the population), comprising individuals of mixed descent; the Indian (or Asian) ethnic group (2.6% of the population), which consists of descendants of indentured labourers who came to South Africa from the Indian subcontinent in the late 1800s; and the White ethnic group (9.2% of the population), consisting of the descendants of European immigrants and settlers (StatsSA, 2012). While classification of individuals along ethnic or racial lines is likely to be deemed offensive by both South African and international audiences, particularly in relation to the use of the term "Coloured" to refer to individuals of mixed descent, these classification categories continue to be commonly used in South Africa even under the new democratically elected government, and have even been incorporated into the census as acceptable terms for self-identification (StatsSA, 2012). As such these ethnic classifications form an integral part of understanding South African society and are often used as proxies for racial, cultural, historical and linguistic divides within South African society (Adams et al., 2012). In particular, language often serves as a proxy for ethnicity in South Africa with each of the ethnic groups being associated with a specific language or group of languages. Thus, the African (Black) ethnic group is associated with indigenous South African languages, the Coloured group is associated with Afrikaans (a language developed in South Africa and based on Dutch), the Indian (Asian) group traditionally speaks English, and the White group speaks a mixture of English and Afrikaans (Adams et al., 2012). Discriminatory and segregationist policies in South Africa under previous government regimes have also contributed to the development of distinct histories, language(s), and identities for these groups, although these differences may have existed without the presence of these policies (Adams et al., 2012). In a very real sense, South Africa continues to be a country divided along ethnic lines, with these divides reflected in cultural and language divisions (Roodt, 2009; Glaser, 2010; Adams et al., 2012).

These difficulties around the political and sociological definition of citizenship in South Africa are likely to have ramifications for the psychological understanding of citizenship in the country, as it seems possible that different cultural and ethnic groupings within the country are likely to enact citizenship differently, and to manifest the trait of citizenship differently. There has been very limited research in South Africa concerning psychological understandings of citizenship, particularly in relation to the conceptual definition of citizenship provided by the positive psychology movement (Coetzee & Viviers, 2007) and operationalised through the use of the VIA. Van Eeden and Wissing's (2008) use of the VIA (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) to measure citizenship and other character strengths highlighted the existence of differences in the way in which different cultural groups in South Africa understand Peterson and Seligman's (2004) character strengths. They concluded that further research on character strengths is required within the South African context, as the diverse nature of the context suggests that the conceptualisation of the strengths may be different for different population groups. Based on this identified need the discussion now turns to focus on the measurement of citizenship as a psychological trait.


The invariance of citizenship across different groups: A psychometric perspective

The combination of the complex nature of the South African context, as well as the prevailing psychological understanding of citizenship as a universal trait-like feature, provides an ideal context for the investigation of the notion of citizenship as an invariant construct. As citizenship at its most basic level expounds a concept of membership and belonging to a particular social group it may be reasonably supposed that this core membership and belonging embodies an invariant construct that transcends particular contexts. Certainly, Peterson and Seligman's (2004: 13) intent in developing their "manual of sanities" (a term colloquially used to refer to their categorisation of virtues, as opposed to pathologies) was to create a consensual classification of strengths that were "ubiquitously recognized and valued" and concomitant ways of measuring these as individual differences (Park & Peterson, 2007). Specifically seeking accordant definitions and measurements of strengths Peterson and Seligman (2004: 50) sought to avoid "the criticism that any specific list would be culturally and historically idiosyncratic". In order to achieve this, a "test of ubiquity" (Peterson & Seligman, 2004: 51) was held as a standard by which delimitations and measurements were admitted in the strength classification in general and in respect of citizenship in particular.

In the context of the literature that questions the fundamental assumption of invariance in citizenship by emphasising qualitatively differing cultural conceptualisations in general and in the South African context in particular, psychometric theory presents an empirical means by which to clearly test the notion of citizenship's ubiquity. Specifically, from a psychometric perspective, if we view citizenship as an attribute internal to people, then it is legitimate to view it as a latent trait that explains observable behaviour. Questionnaire items serve as manifest indicators of the latent trait. Variance in individual performance in respect to such items should, apart from measurement error, be fully explained by the latent trait of citizenship. In the context of the present research this would extend to the notion that the ethnicity of participants should not predict how a person responds to items measuring the trait. From an item response theory (IRT) perspective it follows that citizenship should exhibit the same meaning across groups if two things can be shown to be equal across the groups: (1) the relationship of the manifest variables to the attribute of citizenship (item discrimination), and (2) the endorsability (i.e. how difficult it is to agree with a particular item) of the item (item location). One means by which to examine the invariance of the meaning and measurement of citizenship is to test its fit to a psychometric model that requires invariance. One such model that explicitly explores such invariance is that of the Rasch measurement model.

The Rasch measurement model facilitates a means by which to assess the extent to w