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Home arrow Environment arrow Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches
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The Problem with Operationism

Strict operationism creates a knotty philosophical problem. We make up concepts and measurement turns these abstractions into reality. Because there are many ways to measure the same abstraction, the reality of any concept hinges on the device you use to measure it. So, sea temperature is different if you measure it from a satellite (you get an answer based on radiation) or with a thermometer (you get an answer based on a column of mercury). Intelligence is different if you measure it with a Stanford-Binet test or the Wechsler scales. If you ask a person in any of the industrialized nations ‘‘How old are you?’’ or ‘‘How many birthdays have you had?’’ you will probably retrieve the same number. But the very concept of age in the two cases is different because different ‘‘instruments’’ (queries are instruments) were used to measure it.

This principle was articulated in 1927 by Percy Bridgman in The Logic of Modern Physics and has become the source of an enduring controversy. The bottom line on strict operational definitions is this: No matter how much you insist that intelligence is really more than what is measured by an intelligence test, that’s all it can ever be. Whatever you think intelligence is, it is exactly and only what you measure with an intelligence test and nothing more.

If you don’t like the results of your measurement, then build a better test, where ‘‘better’’ means that the outcomes are more useful in building theory, in making predictions, and in engineering behavior.

I see no reason to waffle about this, or to look for philosophically palatable ways to soften the principle here. The science that emerges from a strict operational approach to understanding variables is much too powerful to water down with backpedaling. It is obvious that ‘‘future orientation’’ is more than my asking someone ‘‘Do you buy large or small boxes of soap?’’ The problem is, you might not include that question in your interview of the same respondent unless I specify that I asked that question in that particular way (box 2.3).

 
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