The Operational Method in Sociology: A Critical Methodology

Spencer E. Cahill


This thesis is concerned with critically understanding and evaluating one step in the sociological research process, the operationalizing of concepts. It is contended that socioloqy is the offspring of positivistic philosophy, especially in its pragmatic expression. Due to this philosophical basis sociologists must face the problem of relating abstract concepts, to the empirical world. Operationalism, making concepts synonymous with the operations by which they are empirically determined, was advanced as a solution to this problem. Sociologists in the first half of the twentieth century either interpreted operationalism (1) rigidly, allowing for only operationalized terms, or (2) loosely, acknowledging a need for abstract concepts as well. Examination of recent methods texts, research, and the literature on sociological theory construction suggests that "loose operationalism" has come to be the standard interpretation of the operational method in contemporary empirical sociology. The loose operational approach is explained and some advise is given concerning its use. The most important such advise is that methodological decisions, including the selection of operational terms, can not be isolated from the proper commitment of sociology, to enable men and women to know what is going on in the world and within themselves.