What is an Operational Definition? LO27059

From: Fred Nickols (nickols@att.net)
Date: 07/26/01

In LO27048, Hanching Chung writes:

>Fred Nickols Wrote
> > I kind of like what Elliott Jaques had to say about "operational
> > definitions"..."the definition not of things but of dimensions or qualities
> > of things by means of a description of the operations necessary to
> > measure those
> > dimensions or qualities." (p.23 in A General Theory of Bureaucracy.)
>In certain way, the definition of 'operational definition' is misleading,
>and what the aim for striving for 'operational thinking or operational
>meaning' is summarized in Bridgman's "The Logic of Modern Physics":

As it happens, Bridgman's book is the source of Elliott Jaques' definition
above. Jaques footnoted that definition on page 23 of his book and that
footnote is worth repeating here:.

"As defined originally by P.W. Bridgman (1927) in The Logic of Modern
Physics. There has been a tendency to lose sight of this definition in
the social sciences and replace it by an incorrect and less useful notion
of operational definition as meaning definition of a thing in terms of
what it can do. The importance of keeping to Bridgman's definition is
that it lays a necessary foundation for the development of measurement and
measuring instruments. For it is the properties of things which are
measurable, not the things themselves."

>"Operational thinking will at first prove to be an unsocial virtue; one
>will find oneself perpetually unable to understand the simplest
>conversation of one's friends, and will make oneself universally unpopular
>by demanding the meaning of apparently the simplest terms of every
>argument. Possibly after every one has schooled himself to this better
>way, there will remain a permanent unsocial tendency, because doubtless
>much of our present conversation will then become unnecessary. The
>socially optimistic may venture to hope, however, that the ultimate effect
>will be to release one's energies for more stimulating and interesting
>interchange of ideas." ( I use the quote by Michael Round's post in DEN.)

I learned a long time ago the importance of defining one's terms. I have
also found that pressing people to define the terms they are using is
indeed met with resistance and annoyance. I haven't quite decided if this
is because so many people assume that everyone has the same meaning for
the terms used and dislike having their assumptions questioned or if it is
because so many conversations are in fact little more than empty-headed
prattling. As a consultant, I have found this particularly true when I
start zeroing in on expected outcomes and how they will be measured.
"What do you mean by....?" and "How will you know that....?" are among the
most useful questions I know and, at the same time, asking them can create
some very awkward moments.

>So perhaps Fred like to tell us his hero Elliott's masterpiece's work on
>this aspect.

I wouldn't call Elliott Jaques my hero; not yet, anyway.


Fred Nickols
The Distance Consulting Company
"Assistance at A Distance"
(609) 490-0095


Fred Nickols <nickols@att.net>

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