A key to research that can be used and repeated is the careful definition of the major concepts in the study. A hazy definition of a concept may enter into relationships with other variables, but since the concept was ill-defined the meaning of those relationships can be no better than ill-defined. The process by which concepts are defined for scientific purposes is called explication, that’s your ten-dollar-impress-your-grad-professor word of then day. Also in academia the word often substitutes for the word “explanation” becase it sounds much, much cooler.
Author’s note: This post is based on a handout from my grad work and the monograph, “Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science,” by Carl G. Hempel (1952) – citation at the end of the post.
So, before we can begin defining our concept, we need to choose what we will be studying…
Selecting the Concept: You have to start with at least a basic idea of what you want to study, or a commonly used label that might be an interesting object of analysis (don’t know what that is? Check out the theory words & definitions post). In the beginning of your quest about the only thing you can choose is what you want to focus on. Your thinking about that concept or focal variable should change quite a bit as you study it. Keep in mind that you should try to select a concept that is amenable to empirical observation, and likely to fit into relationships that are important for mass comm and communication theory. Avoid using operational definitions from other people’s research. You can make your best contribution by a fresh start that might lead to innovative studies.
Literature Review: Once you have decided roughly what your focus is to be (focal variable!!), scour research journals, books, articles, etc. in search of studies that have dealt with it (DO NOT use Wikipedia, a Department Chair clubs a baby seal every time you do). Your goal is to locate the various definitions that have been used. Keep a running list of all the ways that the concept has been defined for research purposes and where. A spreadsheet or Google Doc can be very handy for this. You can ignore purely abstract definitions, those where the concept is given a meaning that doesn’t seem to relate to the real world or any place where your term is used and no definition is provided. There will undoubtedly be cases where your concept has been given some other name – keep track of those too. It is the empirical usage or main idea of the concept that is truly important, not the label that is put on it. However, be sure to note in your writing that the concept can go by different names.
Definition Levels: Sort out the various definitions you have found, into one of the three basic types:
- Nominal Definition:When a set of operational procedures is given an arbitrary name without any “reduction statements” linking the name to the measure, the definition is a nominal one. This is the most common type of definition in mass comm and communication research and, sadly, the least useful. It can usually be spotted by the obvious gap between the label and the measure (or definition). Examples:
- Intelligence is what an I.Q. test measures. Ok, but this still tells me nothing about what intelligence actually is.
- Communication development is a nation’s daily newspaper circulation per capita. What? I sort of get it, but still very unclear.
- Consensus consists of a majority vote. Right, but what does it mean? 51%? More? Does it apply to other situations?
- Real Definition – Meaning Analysis: A much more useful type of definition is to express the meaning of a top level term by listing the lower level concepts that compose it. The lower terms are less complex in that they are more clearly tied to actual definitions. This list of lower concepts is expandable and replaceable usually – new items can be added and others may be removed. Any changes of this sort change the meaning of the concept. Examples:
- Mass media are newspapers, books, magazines, radio, television… (Note that this list is clearly able to go on and on, however depending on what you add, can change the meaning).
- Legal controls on the press include laws against libel, sedition, obscenity, blasphemy… (There is actually a much longer list that sadly expands).
- Real definition – Empirical analysis: This form of definition is the listing of the necessary and sufficient conditions for observation of the concept. This is the most useful type of definition for scientific purposes since changes in the lower concepts do not change the nature of the higher concept. In a way, these definitions are hypotheses, subject to modification as we learn more about the concept. In mass comm and communication research, this type of definition is rare, and frankly, awesome to come across. Some cursory efforts, as examples:
- Communication requires that a symbol be transmitted by one person and received by a second person, and a signal (represented by the symbol) must be shared, at least in part, by the transmitter and the receiver.
- Information seeking consists of a person undertaking some action to increase his [or her] input of a specific type of communication content; that he [she] be, to some extent, uncertain what content he [she] will receive; and that his [her] action is to some extent motivated by uncertainty.
- In both these cases you can see how clearly we’ve defined the term. It’s not 100% there but we’re way past giving examples or listing things that are part of it.
- Level of Analysis: The next step is to distinguish between two kinds of attributes that are called property terms and relational terms. A property term is an attribute that is observable for one person or object (or, you know, a property of that object), in isolation from other persons or objects. A relational term is only observable in the interaction of two persons, or the comparison of two objects, or in some similar two-unit relationship (like a relationship, not rocket science here). Most of the attributes we are interested in for communication research are relational in nature. Strangely, they are often described as if they were properties, in that only one person, say, is observed at a time. This kind of anomaly is a serious error in research procedure. Early in the process of explication (admit it, it sounds cooler) you should decide whether your concept is a property or a relation. Any further work with the concept should stick to whichever level of analysis you have decided on. Examples:
- Income is a property, but socioeconomic status is a relational term. So if you are interested in SES but have data only on income, you should be treating that data as relational. Easy cheesy.
- Information seeing can be thought of as a property of an individual. But it may be relational to other forms of behavior. For instance, it preempts other forms of communication, in that a person can only do one thing at a time. So your explication might well lead you into defining a whole typology of forms of communication, which are mutually exclusive. This is very frequent in social research, and provides a rich source of hypotheses.
- It should be clear that such concepts as obedience, power, I.Q., liberalism, relevance, and knowledge are relational for most purposes. It should be clear. It isn’t always that way.
Stay tuned for Part 2 and the thrilling conclusion to: How to Define Your Concept a.k.a. Concept Explication coming soon to a mass communication blog near you (this one, in case that was confusing).
Citation: Hempel, C. G. (1952). Fundamentals of concept formation in empirical science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.