Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Using Operational Definitions in Research: A Best-Practices Approach

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Using Operational Definitions in Research: A Best-Practices Approach

Article excerpt

One of the most widely conducted method practices in psychology is one of the least examined - operationalizing. Virtually every psychological method text considers operationalization, or the use of operational definitions, to be a necessity for the proper conduct of psychological research. Bordens and Abbott (1999), for example, are straightforward:"... without using operational definitions, questions cannot be answered meaningfully" (p. 30). Similarly, other method texts assert that psychological researchers "must operationalize" (Furlong, Lovelace, and Lovelace, 2000, p. 63; Krathwohl, 2009, p. 141), and that rigorous studies "need" or "require" operationalization (Borg and Gall; 1989, p. 65; Krathwohl, 2009, p. 140) because an operational definition ". gives meaning to a variable..." (Kerlinger and Lee, 2000, p. 43; see also Privitera, 2014, p. 89).

Yet, perhaps surprisingly given its pervasiveness, operationalization has received relatively little critical examination. As we will attempt to show, such examinations have been "sporadic" or "rarely voiced" (Feest, 2005, p. 131; Shean, 2013, p. 74), with most treating operationism as a philosophy of science that is evaluated negatively due to its connection with positivism or post-positivism (e.g., Bickard, 2001; Leahey, 1980; Michell, 2013). Even so, there is no unanimity in such criticism. Feest (2005), for example, has challenged the supposed connection between operationism and positivism.

Our purpose here is more practical than philosophical. We recognize that practical concerns are philosophically situated, but in this article we are interested more in operationalization as a practice than in operationism as a philosophy. Given the widespread adoption of operational definition (or operationalization) and the scarcity with which it is examined in practice, we believe that psychological researchers should establish a best-practices approach to the use of operational definitions. As Furlong et al. (2000) noted, "... researchers must be extraordinarily concerned with selecting operational definitions and measurement procedures that actually measure what they intend to study..." (emphasis added, p. 64). Our intention, then, is to provide an initial set of recommendations for establishing best practices regarding this "extraordinary concern."

Consequently, we first set the context of this aim by providing some clarifications and a brief history of this research practice. We specifically minimize the connection to philosophies of science because those philosophical issues have already been addressed (Koch, 1992; Leahey, 1980, 1981, 1983, 2001; Michell, 2013), and because the analyses offered are sometimes less than helpful to practicing researchers. Instead, we provide what could be viewed as a kind of commonsense discussion of potential problems with operational definition, clarifying how the practice of conceptualizing operationalizations occurs in the process. Second, we offer an approach to operationalization that may begin a constructive conversation about the limits and uses of this important and relatively unexamined methodological practice. With others (e.g., Bickhard, 2001; Koch, 1992; Leahey, 1980), we agree that there are reasons to question the use of operational defnitions in a good deal of psychological research. As we will suggest, however, there are better and worse ways to engage in this practice, provided that researchers have adequately established a need for operationalization in a given study.

Brief History and Clarification

This brief account can only outline some major developments in the use of operational definitions, with other articles describing this history more thoroughly (e.g., Feest, 2005; Koch, 1992; Smith, 1997). Historians of psychology, such as Viney and King (2003), have fairly routinely credited the physicist Percy Bridgman with "set[ting] forth the principles of operationism" (p. 302) in his classic book (1927) The Logie of Modern Physics. …

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