Chapter 2. Conceptualizing

1. What are "essential qualities"?

The qualities that must be present; the necessary ingredients. For example, the definition "violent movies are movies in which there are scenes of kicking, stabbing, clubbing, choking, hitting, slapping, shooting, and smashing" is not a good conceptual definition because it lists many activities that are not essential and it fails to describe the essential qualities. What are the conceptual qualities that must be present before you will call something "violent"? You may want to say something like "violent movies show scenes in which one person injures, maims, or causes pain to another." This much shorter list of more abstract qualities would probably include all of the specific activities in the list above as well as many violent acts not on that list.

The specification of essential qualities is the most important part of a conceptual definition because it does two very important things: 1) It tells what the concept means so clearly that you can tell whether or not something is an example of the concept. 2) It gives some very good clues about how the concept could be measured in a most straightforward way: look for the presence or absence of the essential qualities. For example, if you accepted the suggested definition of violent movies as those which "show scenes in which one person injures, maims, or causes pain to another" in the previous paragraph, you could determine whether or not a movie is violent, by looking to see whether it contained scenes in which one person injures, maims, or causes pain to another. (But first you will have to decide what counts as injury or pain.)

2. What role do essential qualities play in conceptual definitions?

They tell you what the essential, central "ingredients" of a concept are. In doing this, they let you know exactly what the concept is supposed to mean and, since they tell you what must be in the concept, they give some very good clues as to how you might measure the concept.

3. Why do you need a conceptual definition when you already have a perfectly good operational definition?

A conceptual definition tells you what the concept means, while operational definitions only tell you how to measure it. If you have only an operational definition, you may know how to measure it, but you won't know what you are measuring. This means that your measurements won't be worth much, considering that you don't know what the concept is, so you don't know what you measured.

4. What is the difference between a variable and a concept?

While concepts are associated with theory, variables are associated with measurement and observation. Variables are empirical indicators of constructs. This means that they are things that you can observe or measure, and when you do the measurement, your results tell you about the extent to which the concept is present.

Note carefully: The variable is not the construct. It is something concrete that you can observe, and by its appearance you can tell whether the concept is present or absent or to what extent it is present. In a way, constructs and variables are like diseases and symptoms. When you get the flu, you have a number of experiences. You feel tired, weak, and achy. You may have nausea or other uncomfortable experiences. You may have a fever. None of these experiences, by themselves, are the disease. They are only symptoms of the disease. If you have enough of these symptoms, though, you will probably say you have the flu.

Constructs are like diseases; variables are the "symptoms" of constructs. You observe constructs by watching their "symptoms"— the variables that serve as their indicators. For example, the behaviors that we would say are examples of prejudice are the symptoms we would look for if we wanted to see if someone is prejudiced. Although the behaviors themselves are not prejudice, we would say that a person who performs them is prejudiced.

5. What is the relation between a hypothesis and a theory?

This is an important issue that seems to give students a lot of difficulty. Hypotheses are derived from theory, which means they are the logical consequences of the theory. The theory describes a general relationship between the abstract concepts, while the hypothesis describes a particular instance of that relationship in specified circumstances. If the theory is valid, the hypothesis, which the theory logically implies, must also be valid. (also, see the answer to question 9)

6. What is empirical research?

Empirical research is research in which the questions are about things that exist or happen, and in which the answers are obtained by somehow observing things in the world.

7. A professor is studying learning and academic performance and uses GPA (grade point average) as a measure of how much her students have learned. Discuss why (or why not) this is an adequate conceptual definition of learning.

8. What is "reification," and how can it cause problems with the development of conceptual definitions?

Concepts are often created by summarizing a large set of real-life experiences of one kind or another. The name of the concept is like the label that tells what is in a file folder; it is a short easy way to indicate what the folder contains. The problem is that the conceptual summary is so easy to use and so much more convenient than giving a long discussion of the ideas in the concept, that researchers may begin to think of the concept as a real thing, when it is actually just an idea and a few words. The process by which an abstract idea is treated as if it was a real object is called reification.

Reification is latin for "thing-ification" or "transform an idea into a thing".

Reification can cause problems because the concept is not a real object or thing; it is only a bit of conceptual shorthand that was created in the first place to make it easier for people to express their ideas to one another. Yet a reified concept is regarded by the people who use it as if it was a real thing with a natural, real, true meaning that can be discovered by a clever researcher. This can cause problems when different researchers have different beliefs about the "real" meaning of the concept and when they forget to recognize the fact that it is their responsibility to be clear about what they mean by their concepts.

9. Why do researchers test hypotheses when they are really interested in theories?

You don't test the abstract theory directly; instead, you test the specific conclusions logically implied by the theory. If the theory is true, you would expect to see particular things happen in certain situations. Because of the theory, you can make predictions about what will happen in these situations. These predictions are called hypotheses. Since hypotheses are predictions about specific things that may or may not happen in particular situations, they can easily be tested. Do you see what you would predict on the basis of the theory? If you do, you have obtained some evidence that supports the theory. On the other hand, if you don't see what you would predict, you know you have a problem.

10. What does it mean to say that something is "empirically verifiable"? Give an example.

A theory is empirically verifiable if it can be verified by observations of things that exist or happen. It is a theory whose truth would have real-world implications which can be tested or observed.

About twenty years ago I had some long conversations with a student who was supposed to write a term paper about an area of theory and the research that had been done on the theory. This student argued that his particular chosen area of theory could not be subjected to empirical research because it is not possible to devise empirical predictions (hypotheses) based on the theory. Because it is not possible to develop hypotheses logically implied by this theory, the theory can not be tested in any way that uses empirical research methods. Since there can be no empirical research on this theory, it is not possible to describe the research, and what's more, the research that could not be done would have no effect on anyone's understanding of the theory and its consequences. I suggested that a theory that has no connection with reality may be an interesting philosophical oddity, but it is useless as a theory because it doesn't tell us anything. In short, it may be a belief, bit it isn't a theory.


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1. 21

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10. 20