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Home arrow Environment arrow Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches


Conceptual definitions are limited because, although they point us toward measurement, they don’t really give us any recipe for measurement. Without measurement, we cannot make useful comparisons. We cannot tell whether Spaniards are more flamboyant than the British, or whether Catholicism is more authoritarian than Buddhism. We cannot evaluate the level of anger in an urban community over perceived abuses by the police of their authority, or compare the level of that anger to the anger found in another community in another city.

Operational definitions specify exactly what you have to do to measure something that has been defined conceptually. Here are four examples of operational definitions:

1. Intelligence: Take the Wechsler Adults Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and administer it to

a person. Count up the score. Whatever score the person gets is his or her intelligence.

  • 2. Machismo: Ask a man if he approves of women working outside the home, assuming the family doesn’t need the money;if he says ‘‘no,’’ then give him a score of 1, and if he says ‘‘yes,’’ score him 0. Ask him if he thinks women and men should have the same sexual freedom before marriage; if he says ‘‘no,’’ score 1 and score 0 for ‘‘yes.’’ Ask him if a man should be punished for killing his wife and her lover; if he says ‘‘no,’’ score 1; score 0 for ‘‘yes.’’ Add the scores. A man who scores 3 has more machismo than a man who scores 2, and a man who scores 2 has more machismo than a man who scores 1.
  • 3. Tribal identity: Ask American Indians if they speak the language of their ancestors fluently. If‘‘yes,’’ score 1. If‘‘no,’’ score 0. Ask them if they attend at least one tribal pow-wow each year. Score 1 for ‘‘yes,’’ and 0 for ‘‘no.’’ Ask them eight other questions of this type, and give them a score of 1 for each answer that signifies self-identification with their tribal heritage. Anyone who scores at least 6 out of 10 is an ‘‘identifier.’’ Five or less is a ‘‘rejecter’’ of tribal heritage or identity.
  • 4. Support for trade barriers against China: Ask workers in a textile factory to complete the Support of Trade Barriers against China Scale. Add the four parts of the scale together to produce a single score. Record that score.

These definitions sound pretty boring, but think about this: If you and I use the same definitions for variables, and if we stick to those definitions in making measurements, then our data are strictly comparable:

We can tell if children in city A have higher intelligence scores than do children in city B.

We can tell if older men in Huehuetenango have higher machismo scores than do younger men in that same village.

We can tell if people in tribe A have higher cultural identity scores than do people in tribe B.

We can tell whether the average scores indicating level of support for trade barriers against China is greater among workers in the factory you studied than among workers in the factory I studied.

I find the ability to make such comparisons exciting and not at all boring. But did you notice that I never said anything in those comparisons about ethnic identity per se, or intelligence per se, or machismo per se, or support for trade barriers per se. In each case, all I said was that we could tell if the scores were bigger or smaller.

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