Operationalization is the process by which a researcher defines how a concept is measured, observed, or manipulated within a particular study. This process translates the theoretical, conceptual variable of interest into a set of specific operations or procedures that define the variable’s meaning in a specific study. In traditional models of science, operationalization provides the bridge between theoretically based hypotheses and the methods used to examine these predictions.
Examples of Operational Definitions
Imagine a researcher who is interested in helping curb aggression in schools by exploring if aggression is a response to frustration. To answer the question, the researcher must first define “aggression” and “frustration,” both conceptually and procedurally. In the example of frustration, the conceptual definition may be obstruction of goal-oriented behavior, but this definition is rarely specific enough for research. Therefore, an operational definition is needed that identifies how frustration and aggression will be measured or manipulated. In this example, frustration can be operationally defined in terms of responses to the question: How frustrated are you at this moment? The response options can be (a) not at all, (b) slightly, (c) moderately, and (d) very. The researcher could then classify people as frustrated if they answered “moderately” or “very” on the scale.
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The researcher must also operationalize aggression in this particular study. However, one challenge of developing an operational definition is turning abstract concepts into observable (measurable) parts. For example, most people will agree that punching another person in the face with the goal of causing pain counts as an act of aggression, but people may differ on whether teasing counts as aggression. The ambiguity about the exact meaning of a concept is what makes operationalization essential for precise communication of methodological procedures within a study. In this particular example, aggression could be operational-ized as the number of times a student physically hits another person with intention to harm. Thus, having operationally defined the theoretical concepts, the relation between frustration and aggression can be investigated.
The Pros and Cons of Operationalization
Operationalization is an essential component in a theoretically centered science because it provides the means of specifying exactly how a concept is being measured or produced in a particular study. A precise operational definition helps ensure consistency in interpretation and collection of data, and thereby aids in replication and extension of the study. However, because most concepts can be operationally defined in many ways, researchers often disagree about the correspondence between the methods used in a particular study and the theoretical concept. In addition, when definitions become too specific, they are not always applicable or meaningful.
- Emilio, R. (2003). What is defined in operational definitions? The case of operant psychology. Behavior and Philosophy, 31, 111-126.
- Underwood, B. J. (1957). Psychological research. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.