Operationalisation | A Guide with Examples, Pros & Cons

Operationalisation means turning abstract concepts into measurable observations. Although some concepts, like height or age, are easily measured, others, like spirituality or anxiety, are not.

Through operationalisation, you can systematically collect data on processes and phenomena that aren’t directly observable.

Example: Operationalisation
The concept of social anxiety can’t be directly measured, but it can be operationalised in many different ways. For example:

  • Self-rating scores on a social anxiety scale
  • Number of recent behavioural incidents of avoidance of crowded places
  • Intensity of physical anxiety symptoms in social situations

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Why operationalisation matters

In quantitative research, it’s important to precisely define the variables that you want to study.

Without transparent and specific operational definitions, researchers may measure irrelevant concepts or inconsistently apply methods. Operationalisation reduces subjectivity and increases the reliability of your study.

Your choice of operational definition can sometimes affect your results. For example, an experimental intervention for social anxiety may reduce self-rating anxiety scores but not behavioural avoidance of crowded places. This means that your results are context-specific and may not generalise to different real-life settings.

Generally, abstract concepts can be operationalised in many different ways. These differences mean that you may actually measure slightly different aspects of a concept, so it’s important to be specific about what you are measuring.

Concept Examples of operationalisation
  • The difference between how well people think they did on a test and how well they actually did (overestimation)
  • The difference between where people rank themselves compared to others and where they actually rank (overplacement)
  • The number of uses for an object (e.g., a paperclip) that participants can come up with in 3 minutes
  • Average ratings of the originality of uses of an object that participants come up with in 3 minutes
Perception of threat
  • Physiological responses of higher sweat gland activity and increased heart rate when presented with threatening images
  • Participants’ reaction times after being presented with threatening images
Customer loyalty
  • Customer ratings on a questionnaire assessing satisfaction and intention to purchase again
  • Records of products purchased by repeat customers in a three-month period

If you test a hypothesis using multiple operationalisations of a concept, you can check whether your results depend on the type of measure that you use. If your results don’t vary when you use different measures, then they are said to be ‘robust’.

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How to operationalise concepts

There are three main steps for operationalisation:

  1. Identify the main concepts you are interested in studying.
  2. Choose a variable to represent each of the concepts.
  3. Select indicators for each of your variables.

Step 1: Identify the main concepts you are interested in studying

Based on your research interests and goals, define your topic and come up with an initial research question.

Example: Research question 
Is there a relation between sleep and social media behaviour in teenagers?

There are two main concepts in your research question:

  • Sleep
  • Social media behaviour

Step 2: Choose a variable to represent each of the concepts

Your main concepts may each have many variables, or properties, that you can measure.

For instance, are you going to measure the amount of sleep or the quality of sleep? And are you going to measure how often teenagers use social media, which social media they use, or when they use it?

Concept Variables
Sleep Amount of sleep
Quality of sleep
Social media behaviour Frequency of social media use
Social media platform preferences
Night-time social media use
To decide on which variables to use, review previous studies to identify the most relevant or underused variables. This will highlight any gaps in the existing literature that your research study can fill.
Example: Hypothesis 
Based on your literature review, you choose to measure the variables quality of sleep and night-time social media use. You predict a relationship between these variables and state it as a null and alternate hypothesis.

  • Alternate hypothesis: Lower quality of sleep is related to higher night-time social media use in teenagers.
  • Null hypothesis: There is no relation between quality of sleep and night-time social media use in teenagers.

Step 3: Select indicators for each of your variables

To measure your variables, decide on indicators that can represent them numerically.

Sometimes these indicators will be obvious: for example, the amount of sleep is represented by the number of hours per night. But a variable like sleep quality is harder to measure.

You can come up with practical ideas for how to measure variables based on previously published studies. These may include established scales or questionnaires that you can distribute to your participants. If none are available that are appropriate for your sample, you can develop your own scales or questionnaires.

Concept Variable Indicator
Sleep Amount Average number of hours of sleep per night
Quality Sleep activity tracker of sleep phases
Social media behaviour Frequency Number of logins during the day
Preference Most frequently used social media platform
Night-time use Amount of time spent using social media before sleep
Example: Indicators 
  • To measure sleep quality, you give participants wristbands that track sleep phases.
  • To measure night-time social media use, you create a questionnaire that asks participants to track how much time they spend using social media in bed.

After operationalising your concepts, it’s important to report your study variables and indicators when writing up your methodology section. You can evaluate how your choice of operationalisation may have affected your results or interpretations in the discussion section.

Strengths of operationalisation

Operationalisation makes it possible to consistently measure variables across different contexts.

  • Empiricism

Scientific research is based on observable and measurable findings. Operational definitions break down intangible concepts into recordable characteristics.

  • Objectivity

A standardised approach for collecting data leaves little room for subjective or biased personal interpretations of observations.

  • Reliability

A good operationalisation can be used consistently by other researchers. If other people measure the same thing using your operational definition, they should all get the same results.

Limitations of operationalisation

Operational definitions of concepts can sometimes be problematic.

  • Underdetermination

Many concepts vary across different time periods and social settings.

For example, poverty is a worldwide phenomenon, but the exact income level that determines poverty can differ significantly across countries.

  • Reductiveness

Operational definitions can easily miss meaningful and subjective perceptions of concepts by trying to reduce complex concepts to numbers.

For example, asking consumers to rate their satisfaction with a service on a 5-point scale will tell you nothing about why they felt that way.

  • Lack of universality

Context-specific operationalisations help preserve real-life experiences, but make it hard to compare studies if the measures differ significantly.

For example, corruption can be operationalised in a wide range of ways (e.g., perceptions of corrupt business practices, or frequency of bribe requests from public officials), but the measures may not consistently reflect the same concept.

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Frequently asked questions about operationalisation

What is operationalisation?

Operationalisation means turning abstract conceptual ideas into measurable observations.

For example, the concept of social anxiety isn’t directly observable, but it can be operationally defined in terms of self-rating scores, behavioural avoidance of crowded places, or physical anxiety symptoms in social situations.

Before collecting data, it’s important to consider how you will operationalise the variables that you want to measure.

What’s the difference between concepts, variables and indicators?

In scientific research, concepts are the abstract ideas or phenomena that are being studied (e.g., educational achievement). Variables are properties or characteristics of the concept (e.g., performance at school), while indicators are ways of measuring or quantifying variables (e.g., yearly grade reports).

The process of turning abstract concepts into measurable variables and indicators is called operationalisation.

What’s the difference between reliability and validity?

Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:

  • Reliability refers to the consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions).
  • Validity refers to the accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).

If you are doing experimental research, you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.

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Pritha Bhandari

Pritha has an academic background in English, psychology and cognitive neuroscience. As an interdisciplinary researcher, she enjoys writing articles explaining tricky research concepts for students and academics.