Defining Operational Definition
"An operational definition is a procedure agreed upon for translation of a concept into measurement of some kind."
― W. Edwards Deming
― W. Edwards Deming
When conducting an experiment or a research, one necessarily needs to look for a problem or a question upon which the entire study would be based. Once the researcher has thoroughly studied the problem, he/she narrows it down to a measurable hypothesis. Testing the hypothesis is the only means to reach a logical and meaningful conclusion.
However, a hypothesis, unless tested, doesn't stand as a definition on its own. Variables in the study and in the hypothesis are used or measured in context of the experiment or study, thus the need to be operationally defined.
For simplification, we can say that the measure or nature of a variable which is operational or functional in the experiment needs to be clearly defined. When a hypothesis is proved to work, it becomes a theoretical definition (backed by a valid theory).
It can be concluded that operational definitions are a stepping stone to theoretical definitions. The concept of operational definitions can be properly understood with the help of some examples.
Operational Definition Explained With Examples
► Operational definitions are used in research and experiments conducted across several physical, social, and medical sciences. The concept of operationalization is mostly introduced when a certain term or phenomenon isn't tangible or directly measurable, especially in fields like psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.
► For instance, the concept of intelligence with reference to a study or experiment can be defined as obtaining a certain score in an intelligence inventory; it can also be defined as a person's capability to think logically in order to solve a problem. The definition solely depends on the nature of the study, and varies in the degree of operationalization.
► Operationalization varies in degree means that operational definitions don't simply state the absence or presence of a certain aspect. They are expected to be as precise and specific as possible.
Example: 'Sarah likes Paul' is a statement that leaves scope for a lot of contradictions. The statement can be interpreted or misinterpreted in several ways like, Sarah likes talking to Paul, or simply likes the way he dresses, or wishes to date Paul, or whatever.
► If an experiment defines liking as the quality to flirt, then Sarah flirts with Paul. If the experiment were to further define that flirt is the activity of talking in a naughty way; then the operational definition would become even more precise and clear, and would sound like this - Sarah talks to Paul in a naughty way.
► Precision in an operational definition makes an experiment, study, or research more valid and logical. Let's consider another example; assume that Newton has just begun hypothesizing the laws of motion.
Newton crudely states the first unproved law: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. Here, Newton will have to operationally define motion and force.
Example: A man doesn't simply go and ask for a burger in Burger King. He specifies what sort of burger he wants, like a beef burger with veggies and cheese, or maybe a steak burger. The person to a certain degree is operationally defining a burger. Burger to that person at that point of time can mean a specific type of burger (as per his taste and mood).
► When a doctor says that a patient has high fever, he means that the body temperature of the patient was checked using a thermometer, and the resulting temperature was higher than the regular body temperature of a normal human (98.6 °F).
Operationally defining variables of study either before or after formulating a hypothesis, is one of the most rudimentary steps in scientific research.