1994 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 10/29/12

A. What is it?

Operationalization occurs when we take a hypothesis, e.g. aggression causes further aggression, and develop a procedure, or operation, for identifying instances of the critical terms, here, aggression. Our operation should give us answers to questions like:

1. How can we recognize aggression?

2. What is or isn't a case of aggression?

3. How will we determine if aggression has increased or decreased?

Consider the hypothesis Watching depictions of violence on TV makes kids more violent. Trying to operationalize the critical terms here might bring us to asking

1. What is watching TV? Need a child be paying close attention to it, or would just having it on in the background count? How do we determine how much TV a child is watching?

2. What counts as violence? Football? Mighty Mouse? A depiction of an assault? Documentary footage from a war?

3. How are we to determine if kids have become more or less violent? From their play-acting? From their actual fighting? From their arguments or threats?

In its strongest sense, operationalization occurs when we define variables so as to make them measurable.

B. The Advantages and Disadvantages of Operationalization

Operationalization has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is specificity. After operationalization, we should be able to determine whether there is evidence for or against a given hypothesis.

A disadvantage is that operationalization necessary involves interpretation and a narrowing down from broad, though less clear, concepts, to sharper and often less generally agreed to specifications.

It is possible to arrive at competing operationalizations of the same term and thus provoke disagreement about which is "best". The greater the specificity, the more likely a complaint the the defined variable is "too narrowly interpreted." Such disagreements are not settled by further operationalization, but by philosophical, moral, political or pragmatic argument. (See EG Rozycki 2020 "The Nature of Consensus" and related elaborations.)

C. Practicing Operationalization

Operationalize each of the following hypotheses in at least two alternative ways. Specify:

a. the variables

b. the identity criteria for each variable.

c. a measurement procedure for each variable

d. what would count as evidence for or against the hypothesis.

Hypothesis 1: To improve student achievement teachers should raise their expectations.

Hypothesis 2: Birth order affects success in life.

Hypothesis 3: Reward depresses free play behavior.

Hypothesis 4: Use of corporal punishment in a family varies directly with SES.

Hypothesis 5: Higher reading skill levels increase income-earning ability.