Describe the Process of Operationally Defining a Concept

Describe the process of operationally defining a concept - When someone says, “That kid’s a delinquent,” most of us quickly draw some mental picture of what that is, and we are able to understand the meaning of the term “delinquent.” If, however, someone were to ask, “How would you define a delinquent?” we would probably find that some people think about this term differently from others. For some, it may involve a youth under the legal age of adult jurisdiction (usually between 16 and 18 years of age) who commits law violations (Bynum & Thompson, 1992). For others, a delinquent may be simply defined as a youthful law violator (Thornton & Voigt, 1992). Still others may require in their definition some notion of a youth who not only breaks a law but also is convicted in court of this law violation (Siegel & Welsh, 2008). In other words, there are a number of possible definitions for the concept delinquent.

If you, as a researcher, are interested in studying the behavior of delinquent girls, you will first need to clearly define “delinquent.” To ensure that everyone is working with the same definition and mental image, you will need to conceptualize the term and operationalize its measurement. This process is called operationally defining a concept.

Conceptual definitions of a term limit our approach to the particular perspective that we are taking for purposes of our study. A well-defined set of conceptual definitions reveals and justifies the specific kinds of data we will need to answer our research questions. Operational definitions concretize the intended meaning of a concept in relation to a particular study and provide some criteria for measuring the empirical existence of that concept (FrankfortNachmias & Nachmias, 2007; Leedy & Ormrod, 2004). The operationalization tells us how we will get that data.

In operatively defining a term or concept, you, as a researcher, begin by declaring the term to mean whatever you want it to mean throughout the research. Although it is important for your readers to understand what you mean when, for example, you use the concept delinquent, they need not necessarily agree with that definition. As long as they understand what you mean by certain concepts, they can understand and appraise how effectively the concept works in your study. You may even use your literature review to introduce other working definitions of the concept in order to distinguish your definition from these. Researchers routinely introduce changes in the formal definitions of their concepts, building on the accomplishments of past work, refining our tools in pursuit of the nuances of our study topics. Different definitions may coexist, each highlighting a particular aspect of the concept. The important thing is to let your readers know what you mean when you refer to the concept.

Once defined, the concept needs some way to be measured during the research process. In quantitative research, this means creating some index, scale, or similar measurement indicator intended to calculate how much of or to what degree the concept exists. Qualitative investigators also need agreement over what a concept means in a given study and how that concept is to be identified and examined. How will the researcher gather empirical information of data that will inform him or her about that concept?

Consider, for example, the concept weight. As a researcher, you might define the concept weight as the amount of mass an object possesses in terms of pounds and ounces (measured at g0). Now everyone holds the same concrete meaning and mental image for the concept weight. How shall we measure weight as a social concept? Operationally, weight can be determined by placing an object on a scale and rounding to the nearest ounce. This operational definition clearly tells others what the concept is designated to mean and how it will be measured. Of course, this technical definition tells us nothing about the socially relevant concepts of “ideal weight,” or “underweight,” or “overweight,” and is clearly insufficient to talk about body image and the marketing of weight-loss programs. There are medical definitions of “obesity,” which inform our social definitions of the concept, up to a point. As social researchers, we also need to know where the perceptions of obesity and the impact of obesity on other behaviors depart from the medical measures of one’s body-mass index. However, on its own, removed from any social context, we know what weight is.

Unfortunately, not all concepts are as easy to define as weight or as easy to measure. Polit and Hungler (1993) and Polit and Beck (2007), for example, suggest that many concepts relevant to research in nursing are not operationalized simply. For instance, in nursing research, the quality of life for chronically ill patients may be defined in terms of physiological, social, and psychological attributes. If the nurse researcher emphasizes the physiological aspects of quality of life for chronically ill patients in his or her definition, the operationalized component may involve measuring white blood cell counts or oxygen output, assessing invasive surgical procedures or ventilation procedures, measuring blood pressure, and so forth.

If, on the other hand, quality of life for chronically ill patients is defined socially, the operationalized elements of the definition would need to measure family or social support, living arrangements, self-management skills, independence, and similar social attributes, as well as experiential measures such as pain, mobility, depression, and sense of self. Likewise, if the nurse researcher uses a more psychological conceptualization, the operationalized measures would be directed along the lines of the patients’ emotional acceptance of chronic illness.

Let’s try another illustration of defining and operationalizing. Say you are interested in studying to what degree or extent people are religious. To begin, you must define the concept religious. For this example, religious will be defined as how actively one is involved with his or her religion. In a sense, we would wish to know how important religion is to one’s life on a daily or larger basis. Next, you must decide what kinds of information inform others about someone’s active involvement in religion. After consulting the literature, you decide that you know how religious someone is by knowing whether that person believes in a divine being, attends organized religious services on some regular basis, prays at home, reads religious materials, celebrates certain religious holidays, readily declares membership in a particular religion, participates in religious social organizations, and contributes to religious charities.

In effect, you, the researcher, are saying, “I can’t immediately apprehend a person’s religiousness, but I can think about what elements seem to go into making up or representing observable behaviors that I understand and associate with the meaning of religious.” By obtaining information regarding the subset of observable attributes delineated earlier to represent religious, you can study the concept of religiousness, or religiosity. As you think about the observable attributes of religiosity— or of any other concept—you should again peruse the literature. By spiraling back into the literature stage, you can seek ways in which others have examined the concept. You may borrow some of these previous attributes, or you may create others

In some forms of qualitative research, the investigator is not as rigorously concerned with defining concepts in operational terms as outlined here. This is because some forms of interpretative and phenomenological research seek to discover naturally arising meanings among members of study populations. However, in many cases of qualitative research, failure to define and operationalize concepts will spell disaster. If, as a researcher, you have not made clear what your concepts mean, your results may be meaningless in terms of explanatory power or applicability. If you have not thought about how data will be collected to represent attributes of the concept, it will be very difficult for you to determine answers to research questions. And if you have not worked with the literature in developing relevant meanings and measurable attributes, it will be impossible for you to see how eventual results fit into this extant body of knowledge

Your next problem, then, is to determine exactly how information about various attributes will be obtained. As you reach this point, you move one foot forward toward the design stage of the research enterprise. Naturally, your other foot will remain in the literature stage.