Conceptualization and Operationalization


4) Conceptualization

*     Concepts: mental images we use as summary devices for bringing together observations and experiences that seem to have something in common

*    Conceptualization: the process of specifying the vague mental imagery of our concept sorting out the kinds of observations and measurements that will be appropriate for our research.

*    Conceptualization means drawing boundaries around terms to make them tangible. Examples: personality, terrorism, violence, democracy, international law…etc.


How to conceptualize: First define and then operationalize (which is one way of defining concepts).

1-      definition by synonym or linguistic definition (What is democracy?),

2-      definition by classification, (example: classification of political cultures)

3-      definition by enumeration (What is OPEC?),

4-      definition by example, Ex. Consolidated democracy such as Britain…

5-      definition by exclusion, Ex. By 'research' I do not mean going to the drugstore, picking up a magazine, and copying the ideas and words of the first article you see that looks like it might acceptable enough to make into a speech." This statement obviously means that such practice is forbidden.

6-      definition by measurable indicators (operationalization). Ex. "intelligence" is often defined as the score one gets on an intelligence test.

In real world, we combine several of these methods together to come up with a reliable and valid definition and measurement of the phenomenon we study.

5) Operationalization of complex concepts

  •     It is the process of developing operational definition; that is a clear protocol (list of steps) for how to quantitatively measure the concept (i.e. to change the concept into a variable with measurable indicators).

  •   The protocol must be specific and precise enough so that someone else could use your operational definition and obtain the same results you did.


    Example: For surveys, the operationalization of variables is found in codebooks.


  •     To sum up, operationalization means to  add measurable indicators to complex concepts to make them measurable variables.

  • The HDI (Human development index is a good example of a complex concept. It is is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living for countries worldwide


Coloured world map indicating Human Development Index (as of 2003)  ██ over 0.95 ██ 0.90-0.949 ██ 0.85-0.899 ██ 0.80-0.849 ██ 0.75-0.799 ██ 0.70-0.749  ██ 0.65-0.699 ██ 0.60-0.649 ██ 0.55-0.599 ██ 0.50-0.549 ██ 0.45-0.499 ██ 0.40-0.449  ██ 0.35-0.399 ██ 0.30-0.349 ██ under 0.30 ██ N/A


Colored world map indicating Human Development Index (as of 2003)

██ over 0.95 ██ 0.90-0.949 ██ 0.85-0.899 ██ 0.80-0.849 ██ 0.75-0.799 ██ 0.70-0.749

██ 0.65-0.699 ██ 0.60-0.649 ██ 0.55-0.599 ██ 0.50-0.549 ██ 0.45-0.499 ██ 0.40-0.449

██ 0.35-0.399 ██ 0.30-0.349 ██ under 0.30 ██ N/A

Exercise: define and operationalize religiosity.