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What's So Good about Operationism?

Operational definitions are strictly limited to the content of the operations specified. That’s why I also didn’t say anything about whether it was a good idea or a bad one to make any of these measurements or comparisons. If the content of an operational definition is bad, then so are all conclusions you draw from using it to measure something.

This is not an argument against operationism in science. Just the opposite. Operation- ism is the best way to expose bad measurement. By defining measurements operationally, we can tell if one measurement is better than another. If the operational measurement of, say, machismo, seems silly or offensive, it may be because the concept is not very useful to begin with. No amount of measurement or operationism bails out bad concepts. The act of trying, though, usually exposes bad concepts and helps you jettison them.

Adhering to bad measurements is bad science and can have some bad consequences for people. In the 1960s, I was a consultant on a project that was supposed to help Chi- cano high schoolers develop good career aspirations. Studies had been conducted in which Chicano and Anglo high schoolers were asked what they wanted to be when they reached 30 years of age. Chicanos expressed, on average, a lower occupational aspiration than did Anglos. This led some social scientists to advise policymakers that Chicano youth needed reinforcement of career aspirations at home. (There’s that educational model again.)

Contrary to survey findings, ethnographic research showed that Chicano parents had very high aspirations for their children. The parents were frustrated by two things: (1) despair over the cost of sending their children to college; and (2) high school counselors who systematically encouraged Chicana girls to become housewives and Chicano boys to learn a trade or go into the armed services.

The presumed relation between the dependent variable (level of career aspiration among adolescents) and the independent variable (level of aspiration by parents for the careers of their children) was backward. The parents’ level of career aspiration for their children didn’t cause the children to have low aspirations. The children were driven to low aspirations by structural features of their environment. The parents of those children reflected this reality in order—they said explicitly to interviewers who bothered to ask— not to give their children false hopes.

The operational definition of the variable ‘‘parents’ career aspirations for their children” was useless. Here’s the operational definition that should have been used in the study of Chicano parents’ aspirations for their children’s careers:

Go to the homes of the respondents. Using the native language of the respondents (Spanish or English as the case may be), talk to parents about what they want their high school-age children to be doing in 10 years. Explore each answer in depth and find out why parents give each answer.

Ask specifically if the parents are telling you what they think their children will be doing or what they want their children to be doing. If parents hesitate, say: ‘‘Suppose nothing stood in the way of your [son] [daughter] becoming anything they wanted to be. What would you like them to be doing 10 years from now?’’

Write down what the parents say and code it for the following possible scores: 1 = unambivalently in favor of children going into high-status occupations; 2 = ambivalent about children going into high-status occupations; 3 = unambivalently in favor of children going into low- or middle-status occupations.

Use the Nam-Powers-Boyd occupation scale (Nam and Boyd 2004) to decide whether the occupations selected by parents as fitting for their children are high, middle, or low status. Be sure to take and keep notes on what parents say are the reasons for their selections of occupations.

Notice that taking an ethnographic—a so-called qualitative—approach did not stop us from being operational.

Operationism is often crude, but that, too, can be a strength. Robert Wuthnow (1976) operationalized the concept of religiosity in 43 countries using UNESCO data on the number of books published in those countries and the fraction of those books classified as religious literature. Now that’s crude. Still, Wuthnow’s measure of‘‘average religiosity” correlates with seven out of eight indicators of modernity. For example, the higher the literacy rate in 1952, the lower the religiosity in 1972.

I have no idea what that means, but I think following up Wuthnow’s work with more refined measurements—to test hypotheses about the societal conditions that support or weaken religiosity—is a lot more exciting than dismissing it because it was so audaciously crude.

 
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