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Choose a construct that is of interest to you. Find two measures of that construct in the research literature. Tell us a little about both and then determine, if you were conducting your own study, which one (if either) you would use and why? Remember to link your reasoning to this week’s resources.
Defining and Measuring Concepts
Measurement, Conceptualization, and Operationalization
In this chapter we’ll discuss measurement, conceptualization, and operationalization. If you’re not quite sure what any of those words mean, or even how to pronounce them, no need to worry. By the end of the chapter, you should be able to wow your friends and family with your newfound knowledge of these three difficult to pronounce, but relatively simple to grasp, terms.
Describe Kaplan’s three categories of the things that social scientists measure.
Identify the stages at which measurement is important.
Measurement is important. Recognizing that fact, and respecting it, will be of great benefit to you—both in research methods and in other areas of life as well. If, for example, you have ever baked a cake, you know well the importance of measurement. As someone who much prefers rebelling against precise rules over following them, I once learned the hard way that measurement matters. A couple of years ago I attempted to bake my husband a birthday cake without the help of any measuring utensils. I’d baked before, I reasoned, and I had a pretty good sense of the difference between a cup and a tablespoon. How hard could it be? As it turns out, it’s not easy guesstimating precise measures. That cake was the lumpiest, most lopsided cake I’ve ever seen. And it tasted kind of like Play-Doh. Figure 6.1 depicts the monstrosity I created, all because I did not respect the value of measurement.
Measurement is important in baking and in research.
Just as measurement is critical to successful baking, it is as important to successfully pulling off a social scientific research project. In sociology, when we use the term measurement we mean the process by which we describe and ascribe meaning to the key facts, concepts, or other phenomena that we are investigating. At its core, measurement is about defining one’s terms in as clear and precise a way as possible. Of course, measurement in social science isn’t quite as simple as using some predetermined or universally agreed-on tool, such as a measuring cup or spoon, but there are some basic tenants on which most social scientists agree when it comes to measurement. We’ll explore those as well as some of the ways that measurement might vary depending on your unique approach to the study of your topic.
What Do Social Scientists Measure?
The question of what social scientists measure can be answered by asking oneself what social scientists study. Think about the topics you’ve learned about in other sociology classes you’ve taken or the topics you’ve considered investigating yourself. Or think about the many examples of research you’ve read about in this text. In Chapter 2 “Linking Methods With Theory” we learned about Melissa Milkie and Catharine Warner’s study (2011)Milkie, M. A., & Warner, C. H. (2011). Classroom learning environments and the mental health of first grade children. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52, 4–22. of first graders’ mental health. In order to conduct that study, Milkie and Warner needed to have some idea about how they were going to measure mental health. What does mental health mean, exactly? And how do we know when we’re observing someone whose mental health is good and when we see someone whose mental health is compromised? Understanding how measurement works in research methods helps us answer these sorts of questions.
As you might have guessed, social scientists will measure just about anything that they have an interest in investigating. For example, those who are interested in learning something about the correlation between social class and levels of happiness must develop some way to measure both social class and happiness. Those who wish to understand how well immigrants cope in their new locations must measure immigrant status and coping. Those who wish to understand how a person’s gender shapes their workplace experiences must measure gender and workplace experiences. You get the idea. Social scientists can and do measure just about anything you can imagine observing or wanting to study. Of course, some things are easier to observe, or measure, than others, and the things we might wish to measure don’t necessarily all fall into the same category of measureables.
In 1964, philosopher Abraham Kaplan (1964)Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company. wrote what has since become a classic work in research methodology, The Conduct of Inquiry (Babbie, 2010).Earl Babbie offers a more detailed discussion of Kaplan’s work in his text. You can read it in Chapter 5 “Research Design” of the following: Babbie, E. (2010). The practice of social research (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. In his text, Kaplan describes different categories of things that behavioral scientists observe. One of those categories, which Kaplan called “observational terms,” is probably the simplest to measure in social science. Observational terms are the sorts of things that we can see with the naked eye simply by looking at them. They are terms that “lend themselves to easy and confident verification” (1964, p. 54).Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, p. 54. If, for example, we wanted to know how the conditions of playgrounds differ across different neighborhoods, we could directly observe the variety, amount, and condition of equipment at various playgrounds.
Indirect observables, on the other hand, are less straightforward to assess. They are “terms whose application calls for relatively more subtle, complex, or indirect observations, in which inferences play an acknowledged part. Such inferences concern presumed connections, usually causal, between what is directly observed and what the term signifies” (1964, p. 55).Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, p. 55. If we conducted a study for which we wished to know a person’s income, we’d probably have to ask them their income, perhaps in an interview or a survey. Thus we have observed income, even if it has only been observed indirectly. Birthplace might be another indirect observable. We can ask study participants where they were born, but chances are good we won’t have directly observed any of those people being born in the locations they report.
Sometimes the measures that we are interested in are more complex and more abstract than observational terms or indirect observables. Think about some of the concepts you’ve learned about in other sociology classes—ethnocentrism, for example. What is ethnocentrism? Well, you might know from your intro to sociology class that it has something to do with the way a person judges another’s culture. But how would you measure it? Here’s another construct: bureaucracy. We know this term has something to do with organizations and how they operate, but measuring such a construct is trickier than measuring, say, a person’s income. In both cases, ethnocentrism and bureaucracy, these theoretical notions represent ideas whose meaning we have come to agree on. Though we may not be able to observe these abstractions directly, we can observe the confluence of things that they are made up of. Kaplan referred to these more abstract things that behavioral scientists measure as constructs. Constructs are “not observational either directly or indirectly” (1964, p. 55),Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, p. 55. but they can be defined based on observables.
Thus far we have learned that social scientists measure what Abraham Kaplan called observational terms, indirect observables, and constructs. These terms refer to the different sorts of things that social scientists may be interested in measuring. But how do social scientists measure these things? That is the next question we’ll tackle.
How Do Social Scientists Measure?
Measurement in social science is a process. It occurs at multiple stages of a research project: in the planning stages, in the data collection stage, and sometimes even in the analysis stage. Recall that previously we defined measurement as the process by which we describe and ascribe meaning to the key facts, concepts, or other phenomena that we are investigating. Once we’ve identified a research question, we begin to think about what some of the key ideas are that we hope to learn from our project. In describing those key ideas, we begin the measurement process.
Let’s say that our research question is the following: How do new college students cope with the adjustment to college? In order to answer this question, we’ll need to some idea about what coping means. We may come up with an idea about what coping means early in the research process, as we begin to think about what to look for (or observe) in our data-collection phase. Once we’ve collected data on coping, we also have to decide how to report on the topic. Perhaps, for example, there are different types or dimensions of coping, some of which lead to more successful adjustment than others. However we decide to proceed, and whatever we decide to report, the point is that measurement is important at each of these phases.
As the preceding paragraph demonstrates, measurement is a process in part because it occurs at multiple stages of conducting research. We could also think of measurement as a process because of the fact that measurement in itself involves multiple stages. From identifying one’s key terms to defining them to figuring out how to observe them and how to know if our observations are any good, there are multiple steps involved in the measurement process. An additional step in the measurement process involves deciding what elements one’s measures contain. A measure’s elements might be very straightforward and clear, particularly if they are directly observable. Other measures are more complex and might require the researcher to account for different themes or types. These sorts of complexities require paying careful attention to a concept’s level of measurement and its dimensions. We’ll explore these complexities in greater depth at the end of this chapter, but first let’s look more closely at the early steps involved in the measurement process.
Measurement is the process by which we describe and ascribe meaning to the key facts, concepts, or other phenomena that we are investigating.
Kaplan identified three categories of things that social scientists measure including observational terms, indirect observables, and constructs.
Measurement occurs at all stages of research.
See if you can come up with one example of each of the following: an observational term, an indirect observable, and a construct. How might you measure each?
Describe why defining our concepts is important.
Describe how conceptualization works.
Define dimensions in terms of social scientific measurement.
In this section we’ll take a look at one of the first steps in the measurement process, conceptualization. This has to do with defining our terms as clearly as possible and also not taking ourselves too seriously in the process. Our definitions mean only what we say they mean—nothing more and nothing less. Let’s talk first about how to define our terms, and then we’ll examine what I mean about not taking ourselves (or our terms, rather) too seriously.
Concepts and Conceptualization
So far the word concept has come up quite a bit, and it would behoove us to make sure we have a shared understanding of that term. A concept is the notion or image that we conjure up when we think of some cluster of related observations or ideas. For example, masculinity is a concept. What do you think of when you hear that word? Presumably you imagine some set of behaviors and perhaps even a particular style of self presentation. Of course, we can’t necessarily assume that everyone conjures up the same set of ideas or images when they hear the word masculinity. In fact, there are many possible ways to define the term. And while some definitions may be more common or have more support than others, there isn’t one true, always-correct-in-all-settings definition. What counts as masculine may shift over time, from culture to culture, and even from individual to individual (Kimmel, 2008).Kimmel, M. (2008). Masculinity. In W. A. Darity Jr. (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (2nd ed., Vol. 5, pp. 1–5). Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA. This is why defining our concepts is so important.
You might be asking yourself why you should bother defining a term for which there is no single, correct definition. Believe it or not, this is true for any concept you might measure in a sociological study—there is never a single, always-correct definition. When we conduct empirical research, our terms mean only what we say they mean—nothing more and nothing less. There’s a New Yorker cartoon that aptly represents this idea (http://www.cartoonbank.com/1998/it-all-depends-on-how-you-define-chop/invt/117721). It depicts a young George Washington holding an ax and standing near a freshly chopped cherry tree. Young George is looking up at a frowning adult who is standing over him, arms crossed. The caption depicts George explaining, “It all depends on how you define ‘chop.’” Young George Washington gets the idea—whether he actually chopped down the cherry tree depends on whether we have a shared understanding of the term chop. Without a shared understanding of this term, our understandings of what George has just done may differ. Likewise, without understanding how a researcher has defined her or his key concepts, it would be nearly impossible to understand the meaning of that researcher’s findings and conclusions. Thus any decision we make based on findings from empirical research should be made based on full knowledge not only of how the research was designed, as described in Chapter 5 “Research Design”, but also of how its concepts were defined and measured.
So how do we define our concepts? This is part of the process of measurement, and this portion of the process is called conceptualization. Conceptualization involves writing out clear, concise definitions for our key concepts. Sticking with the previously mentioned example of masculinity, think about what comes to mind when you read that term. How do you know masculinity when you see it? Does it have something to do with men? With social norms? If so, perhaps we could define masculinity as the social norms that men are expected to follow. That seems like a reasonable start, and at this early stage of conceptualization, brainstorming about the images conjured up by concepts and playing around with possible definitions is appropriate. But this is just the first step. It would make sense as well to consult other previous research and theory to understand if other scholars have already defined the concepts we’re interested in. This doesn’t necessarily mean we must use their definitions, but understanding how concepts have been defined in the past will give us an idea about how our conceptualizations compare with the predominant ones out there. Understanding prior definitions of our key concepts will also help us decide whether we plan to challenge those conceptualizations or rely on them for our own work.
If we turn to the literature on masculinity, we will surely come across work by Michael Kimmel, one of the preeminent masculinity scholars in the United States. After consulting Kimmel’s prior work (2000; 2008),Kimmel, M. (2000). The gendered society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Kimmel, M. (2008). Masculinity. In W. A. Darity Jr. (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (2nd ed., Vol. 5, pp. 1–5). Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA. we might tweak our initial definition of masculinity just a bit. Rather than defining masculinity as “the social norms that men are expected to follow,” perhaps instead we’ll define it as “the social roles, behaviors, and meanings prescribed for men in any given society at any one time.” Our revised definition is both more precise and more complex. Rather than simply addressing one aspect of men’s lives (norms), our new definition addresses three aspects: roles, behaviors, and meanings. It also implies that roles, behaviors, and meanings may vary across societies and over time. Thus, to be clear, we’ll also have to specify the particular society and time period we’re investigating as we conceptualize masculinity.
As you can see, conceptualization isn’t quite as simple as merely applying any random definition that we come up with to a term. Sure, it may involve some initial brainstorming, but conceptualization goes beyond that. Once we’ve brainstormed a bit about the images a particular word conjures up for us, we should also consult prior work to understand how others define the term in question. And after we’ve identified a clear definition that we’re happy with, we should make sure that every term used in our definition will make sense to others. Are there terms used within our definition that also need to be defined? If so, our conceptualization is not yet complete. And there is yet another aspect of conceptualization to consider: concept dimensions. We’ll consider that aspect along with an additional word of caution about conceptualization next.
A Word of Caution About Conceptualization
So now that we’ve come up with a clear definition for the term masculinity and made sure that the terms we use in our definition are equally clear, we’re done, right? Not so fast. If you’ve ever met more than one man in your life, you’ve probably noticed that they are not all exactly the same, even if they live in the same society and at the same historical time period. This could mean that there are dimensions of masculinity. In terms of social scientific measurement, concepts can be said to have dimensions when there are multiple elements that make up a single concept. With respect to the term masculinity, dimensions could be regional (Is masculinity defined differently in different regions of the same country?), age based (Is masculinity defined differently for men of different ages?), or perhaps power based (Are some forms of masculinity valued more than others?). In any of these cases, the concept masculinity would be considered to have multiple dimensions. While it isn’t necessarily a must to spell out every possible dimension of the concepts you wish to measure, it may be important to do so depending on the goals of your research. The point here is to be aware that some concepts have dimensions and to think about whether and when dimensions may be relevant to the concepts you intend to investigate.
Before we move on to the additional steps involved in the measurement process, it would be wise to caution ourselves about one of the dangers associated with conceptualization. While I’ve suggested that we should consult prior scholarly definitions of our concepts, it would be wrong to assume that just because prior definitions exist that they are any more real than whatever definitions we make up (or, likewise, that our own made-up definitions are any more real than any other definition). It would also be wrong to assume that just because definitions exist for some concept that the concept itself exists beyond some abstract idea in our heads. This idea, assuming that our abstract concepts exist in some concrete, tangible way, is known as reification.
To better understand reification, take a moment to think about the concept of social structure. This concept is central to sociological thinking. When we sociologists talk about social structure, we are talking about an abstract concept. Social structures shape our ways of being in the world and of interacting with one another, but they do not exist in any concrete or tangible way. A social structure isn’t the same thing as other sorts of structures, such as buildings or bridges. Sure, both types of structures are important to how we live our everyday lives, but one we can touch, and the other is just an idea that shapes our way of living.
Here’s another way of thinking about reification: Think about the term family. If you were interested in studying this concept, we’ve learned that it would be good to consult prior theory and research to understand how the term has been conceptualized by others. But we should also question past conceptualizations. Think, for example, about where we’d be today if we used the same definition of family that was used, say, 100 years ago. How have our understandings of this concept changed over time? What role does conceptualization in social scientific research play in our cultural understandings of terms like family? The point is that our terms mean nothing more and nothing less than whatever definition we assign to them. Sure, it makes sense to come to some social agreement about what various concepts mean. Without that agreement, it would be difficult to navigate through everyday living. But at the same time, we should not forget that we have assigned those definitions and that they are no more real than any other, alternative definition we might choose to assign.
Conceptualization is a process that involves coming up with clear, concise definitions.
Some concepts have multiple elements or dimensions.
Just because definitions for abstract concepts exist does not mean that the concept is tangible or concrete.
Level of mearsurment
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