Research Constructs

Constructs are broad concepts or topics for a study. Constructs can be conceptually defined in that they have meaning in theoretical terms. They can be abstract and do not necessarily need to be directly observable. Examples of constructs include intelligence or life satisfaction.

Theoretical propositions consist of relationships between abstract constructs. Testing theories (i.e., theoretical propositions) require measuring these constructs accurately, correctly, and in a scientific manner, before the strength of their relationships can be tested. Measurement refers to careful, deliberate observations of the real world and is the essence of empirical research. While some constructs in social science research, such as a person’s age, weight, or a firm’s size, may be easy to measure, other constructs, such as creativity, prejudice, or alienation, may be considerably harder to measure. In this chapter, we will examine the related processes of conceptualization and operationalization for creating measures of such constructs.

Conceptualization

Conceptualization is the mental process by which fuzzy and imprecise constructs (concepts) and their constituent components are defined in concrete and precise terms. For instance, we often use the word “prejudice” and the word conjures a certain image in our mind; however, we may struggle if we were asked to define exactly what the term meant. If someone says bad things about other racial groups, is that racial prejudice? If women earn less than men for the same job, is that gender prejudice? If churchgoers believe that non -believers will burn in hell, is that religious prejudice? Are there different kinds of prejudice, and if so, what are they? Are there different levels of prejudice, such as high or low? Answering all of these questions is the key to measuring the prejudice construct correctly. The process of understanding what is included and what is excluded in the concept of prejudice is the conceptualization process.

The conceptualization process is all the more important because of the imprecision, vagueness, and ambiguity of many social science constructs. For instance, is “compassion” the same thing as “empathy” or “sentimentality”? If you have a proposition stating that “compassion is positively related to empathy”, you cannot test that proposition unless you can conceptually separate empathy from compassion and then empirically measure these two very similar constructs correctly. If deeply religious people believe that some members of their society, such as nonbelievers, gays, and abortion doctors, will burn in hell for their sins, and forcefully try to change the “sinners” behaviors to prevent them from going to hell, are they acting in a prejudicial manner or a compassionate manner? Our definition of such constructs is not based on any objective criterion, but rather on a shared (“inter-subjective”) agreement between our mental images (conceptions) of these constructs.

While defining constructs such as prejudice or compassion, we must understand that sometimes, these constructs are not real or can exist independently, but are simply imaginary creations in our mind. For instance, there may be certain tribes in the world who lack prejudice and who cannot even imagine what this concept entails. But in real life, we tend to treat this concept as real. The process of regarding mental constructs as real is called reification, which is central to defining constructs and identifying measurable variables for measuring them.

One important decision in conceptualizing constructs is specifying whether they are unidimensional and multidimensional. Unidimensional constructs are those that are expected to have a single underlying dimension. These constructs can be measured using a single measure or test. Examples include simple constructs such as a person’s weight, wind speed, and probably even complex constructs like self-esteem (if we conceptualize self-esteem as consisting of a single dimension, which of course, may be a unrealistic assumption). Multidimensional constructs consist of two or more underlying dimensions. For instance, if we conceptualize a person’s academic aptitude as consisting of two dimensions – mathematical and verbal ability – then academic aptitude is a multidimensional construct. Each of the underlying dimensions in this case must be measured separately, say, using different tests for mathematical and verbal ability, and the two scores can be combined, possibly in a weighted manner, to create an overall value for the academic aptitude construct.

Operationalization

Once a theoretical construct is defined, exactly how do we measure it? Operationalization refers to the process of developing indicators or items for measuring these constructs. For instance, if an unobservable theoretical construct such as socioeconomic status is defined as the level of family income, it can be operationalized using an indicator that asks respondents the question: what is your annual family income? Given the high level of subjectivity and imprecision inherent in social science constructs, we tend to measure most of those constructs (except a few demographic constructs such as age, gender, education, and income) using multiple indicators. This process allows us to examine the closeness amongst these indicators as an assessment of their accuracy (reliability).

Indicators operate at the empirical level, in contrast to constructs, which are conceptualized at the theoretical level. The combination of indicators at the empirical level representing a given construct is called a variable. As noted in a previous chapter, variables may be independent, dependent, mediating, or moderating, depending on how they are employed in a research study. Also each indicator may have several attributes (or levels) and each attribute represent a value. For instance, a “gender” variable may have two attributes: male or female. Likewise, a customer satisfaction scale may be constructed to represent five attributes: “strongly dissatisfied”, “somewhat dissatisfied”, “neutral”, “somewhat satisfied” and “strongly satisfied”. Values of attributes may be quantitative (numeric) or qualitative (non-numeric).

Quantitative data can be analyzed using quantitative data analysis techniques, such as regression or structural equation modeling, while qualitative data require qualitative data analysis techniques, such as coding. Note that many variables in social science research are qualitative, even when represented in a quantitative manner. For instance, we can create a customer satisfaction indicator with five attributes: strongly dissatisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, neutral, somewhat satisfied, and strongly satisfied, and assign numbers 1 through 5 respectively for these five attributes, so that we can use sophisticated statistical tools for quantitative data analysis. However, note that the numbers are only labels associated with respondents’ personal evaluation of their own satisfaction, and the underlying variable (satisfaction) is still qualitative even though we represented it in a quantitative manner.

Indicators may be reflective or formative. A reflective indicator is a measure that “reflects” an underlying construct. For example, if religiosity is defined as a construct that measures how religious a person is, then attending religious services may be a reflective indicator of religiosity. A formative indicator is a measure that “forms” or contributes to an underlying construct. Such indicators may represent different dimensions of the construct of interest. For instance, if religiosity is defined as composing of a belief dimension, a devotional dimension, and a ritual dimension, then indicators chosen to measure each of these different dimensions will be considered formative indicators. Unidimensional constructs are measured using reflective indicators (even though multiple reflective indicators may be used for measuring abstruse constructs such as self-esteem), while multidimensional constructs are measured as a formative combination of the multiple dimensions, even though each of the underlying dimensions may be measured using one or more reflective indicators.




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