Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

In the social sciences, operationalisation has come to mean the process through which (abstract) concepts are translated into (measurable) variables.

explanatory context

Operationalised concepts are related to theoretical concepts but are not coincident with them.


Operationalisation is, then, the process through which social phenomena are selected as indicators of social concepts. (This is sometimes referrred to as operationalism, but operationalisation is a less restrictive approach).


The major problem with operationalisation is the problem of validity, how can one be sure that the operational measurement still measures the theoretical concept. There are no ways in which validity can be 'tested' because of the break between theory and practice (empirical data) that is integral to the quantitative research tradition. The choice of questions is ultimately a subjective decision of the researcher based on preference and prior experience and mediated by the practical trial (and error) process of the pre-pilot and pilot survey.


At each stage in the operationalisation process, maximum care (in theory) is taken in breaking down concepts into component parts, making 'rational' decisions legitimating those decisions in respect of theoretical considerations. Similarly the process of recombining the elements into a single indicator is a carefully considered process that is often 'validated' through statistical analysis, particularly in respect of the weighting of different elements in the final index.


Ultimately, the legitimacy of operationalisation rests on the pragmatic (and theoretically weak) notion of the interchangeability of indicators.


The work of Lazarsfeld and the Columbia School have been influential in the development of operationalisation in the social sciences.

analytical review

Jonker and Pennink (2010) wrote:

Operationalisation is the process of changing a theoretical construct into a concept that can be 'see' in the empirical reality.

Sarantakos (1993, p. 46) defined operationalisation as follows:

operationalisation is thus the process of converting concepts into their empirical measurements or of quantifying variables for the purpose of measuring their occurrence, strength and frequency.

associated issues


related areas

See also

interchangeability of indicators

multivariate analysis

Researching the Real World Section


Jonker, J. and Pennink, B.J.W., 2010, The Essence of Research Methodology: A concise guide for Master and PhD students in Management Science, Springer.

Sarantakos, S., 1993, Social Research, Basingstoke, Macmillan.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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