Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


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.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

A variable is a non-constant object of enquiry.

explanatory context


The object of enquiry, treated as a variable, is usually defined as an attribute that takes on a range of values. For example, a piece of social research may be interested in several variables of a group of people, such as the age of each individual, the gender and party political preference. Hence, 25 years, female and Labour would be values of the variables age, gender, and political party, respectively.


So, a variable is something that varies, such as age, as opposed to something that is deemed, within a research setting, to be fixed and unchanging.


Antecedent variable

Antecedent variable is a term used in multivariate analysis. It refers to any variable that explains (or partially explains) a relationship bewteen two variables (X and Y) by its prior impact on the two variables. Thus social class may be an antecedent variable that effects an observed relationship between income and political party support. This is sometimes referred to as a preceding variable.


Continuous variable

A continuous variable is one that may assume any value between two an upper and lower limit. Examples of continuous variables include age and income.


Dependent variable

A dependent variable is one that has been identified as the manifestation of some social phenomenon and that is caused by, or associated with, other independent variables.


In statistical analysis the dependent variable (usually designated Y) is a function of one or more independent variables (usually designated as X). Income may be dependent on age in some professions.


Discrete variable

Discrete variables are variables that can take only whole numbers or distinct values or scores. For example, the choice of political party in an election would be limited to the parties standing, for example Labour, Liberal, Conservative, and a preference is with one party (or none at all).


Endogenous variable

This is the term sometimes given to dependent variables by causal modellers. As the term implies, an endogenous variable is one that is determined or caused by others that are within the causal model or system under consideration.


Explanatory variable

An explanatory variable is one that explains the phenomenon in question.


It is the variable that produces or causes changes in another variable (which is known as the dependent variable). Explanatory variables are sometimes known as causal or independent variables.

In an experimental situation the explanatory variable is the one that the experimenter varies or manipulates.

Extraneous variable

An extraneous variable is one that might also (i.e. as well as the explanatory variable) explain the phenomenon in question, and that must be ruled out as a possible explanation by the use of controls.

Independent variable

Independent variables are those variables that, to some extent, explain a phenomenon.


An independent variable is one that is thought to produce or cause change in another variable. This latter variable is known as the dependent variable.


Independent variables are sometimes known as causal or explanatory variables.

In statistical analysis independent variables are the components of a regression equation that (appear to) have an impact on the magnitude of the dependent variable. Independent variables are usually designated as X in a regression equation.

In experimental research the independent variable is the one systematically varied or manipulated by the experimenter. The effect of this dependent variable is studied.

Intervening variable

Intervening variable is a term used in multivariate analysis. An intervening variable is one that helps explain an observed association bewteen two variables (X and Y). It is a variable that intervenes between the dependent and independent variable. The relationshup between the dependent and independent variable may then be shown to be spurious because of the presence of the intervening variable, or the intervening variable may specify the nature of the relationship between the dependent or independent variable, and is then referred to as specificatory variable.


Thus, income may be an intervening variable that effects an observed relationship between education and political party support. Education may have some bearing on income, and income may be a factor in choice of political party.


Intervening variables are often not directly measured but may be postulated to clarify an apparent explanation.

Control variable

A factor held constant to test the relative impact of an independent variable.

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines the following:

Variable: Observable characteristics that vary among individuals.
Nominal Variable: A variable determined by categories which cannot be ordered, e.g., gender and color.

Ordinal Variable: A variable in which the order of data points can be determined but not the distance between data points, e.g., letter grades.

Interval Variable: A variable in which both order of data points and distance between data points can be determined, e.g., percentage scores and distances.
Continuous Variable A variable that may have fractional values, e.g., height, weight and time.

Discrete Variable A variable that is measured solely in whole units, e.g., gender and siblings.

Dependent Variable A variable that receives stimulus and measured for the effect the treatment has had upon it.

Independent Variable A variable that is part of the situation that exist from which originates the stimulus given to a dependent variable. Includes treatment, state of variable, such as age, size, weight, etc.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines variable as:

A characteristic that varies in value or magnitude along which an object, individual or group may be categorized, such as income or age.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Variable: A measurable trait or characteristic that is subject to change under different conditions.

associated issues


related areas

See also


measurement scales

multivariate analysis

Researching the Real World Section 8


Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 3 February 2013, still available 1 June 2019.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, ©Frank Elwell, last updated January 1998, page not available 20 December 2016.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home