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The Gerontologist 46:431-438 (2006)
© 2006 The Gerontological Society of America

Self-Rated Health Appraisal as Cultural and Identity Process: African American Elders' Health and Evaluative Rationales

Carmit K. McMullen, PhD1 and Mark R. Luborsky, PhD2

Correspondence: Address correspondence to Carmit K. McMullen, PhD, Center for Health Research, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, 3800 N. Interstate Avenue, Portland, OR 97227. E-mail: carmit.mcmullen{at}

Purpose: We explored self-rated health by using a meaning-centered theoretical foundation. Self-appraisals, such as self-rated health, reflect a cultural process of identity formation, whereby identities are multiple, simultaneously individual and collective, and produced by specific historical formations. Anthropological research in Philadelphia determined (a) how African American elders appraise their health, and (b) how health evaluations reflect cultural and historical experiences within a community.Design and Methods: We interviewed and observed 35 adults aged 65 to 80, stratified by gender and self-rated health. We validated theme analysis of focused interview questions against the larger data set of field notes and transcripts. Results: Health appraisal reflected a complex process of adaptation and identity. Criteria for health included: independent functioning, physical condition, control and responsibility for health, and overall feeling. Evaluative rationales that shaped health appraisals were comparisons, restricted possibilities for self-evaluation, and ways of handling adversity. Evaluative rationales mitigated undesirable health identities (including low self-reported health) and provided mechanisms for claiming desired health identities despite adversity. Implications: Describing the criteria and evaluative rationales underlying self-appraisals of health extends current understandings of self-rated health and illustrates the sociohistorical context of individual assessments of well-being.

Key Words: Self-rated health • African Americans • Qualitative methods • Self-appraisal • Identity

All GSA journals Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Copyright © 2006 by The Gerontological Society of America.