Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

8. Surveys

8.1 Introduction to surveys
8.2 Methodological approaches
8.3 Doing survey research

8.3.1 Aims and purpose
8.3.2 Background to the research
8.3.3 Feasibility
8.3.4 Hypotheses
8.3.5 Operationalisation Preliminary enquiry Operationalisation and validity Scaling Interchangeability of indicators

8.3.6 How will data be collected and what are the key relationships
8.3.7 Designing the research instrument
8.3.8 Pilot survey
8.3.9 Sampling
8.3.10 Questionnaire distribution and interviewing
8.3.11 Coding data
8.3.12.Response rate

8.4 Statistical analysis
8.5 Summary and conclusion


8.3.5 Operationalisation
Operationalisation is the process of transforming a theoretical concept into something that you can define and measure in practice (see Section

The survey is a measuring instrument so it is necessary to define clearly what it is that is being measured.

Operationalising a concept is the process of turning a theoretical notion into a variable. It is the process through which abstract concepts (such as poverty) are defined in theory, their different dimensions are specified, indicators are drawn up for each dimension, and through designing questions, these indicators are converted into variables.


abstract concept > dimensions > indicators > questions > variables

Operationalising concepts involves the following stages.

  1. 1. Define the theoretical concept.
  2. 2. Think of the different aspects of the concept and break it down into the dimensions that cover the meaning of the concept.
  3. 3. Think of several possible indicators for each dimension.
  4. 4. Select one or more indicators for each dimension. Do the selected indicators adequately measure the concept?
  5. 5. Design questions to collect information for each indicator. These are the variables in the study.

CASE STUDY Operationalising Poverty provides an example of how Peter Townsend et al. (1987) defined and operationalised the complex issue of poverty.

Townsend et al. (1987) suggest the following indicators for Deprivation of Family Activity. Write 6 questions that cover the following indicators:
1 Difficulties indoors for child to play.
2. Child has not had holiday away from home in the last 12 months.
3. Child has not had outing during the last 12 months.
4. Child has no days staying with other family or friends in previous 12 months.
5. Problem of the health of someone in family.
6. Respondent has care of disabled or elderly relative.

Operationalising concepts is a crucial part of a sociological survey and has a profound effect on the results.

Different definitions of poverty, for example, will result in different variables. This will have far-reaching effects on the findings of any survey to do with poverty. If we are trying to measure poverty, then our definition of poverty will actually produce the amount of it that we find. If we decide that poor people are those whose income falls below a certain specified level, then we will have to count all those who are in that category. However, if we lower our poverty line, we will at the same time reduce the number of poor people, and if we raise it, we will increase the number (McNeil, 1990, p. 25).

Do you think that the operationalisations in CASE STUDY Religion and Delinquency (Hirschi and Stark, 1969) are adequate for the study? If not what would be appropriate changes? If you were to do a study in Britain today, how might you operationalise these concepts?

Top Preliminary enquiry
In some cases, even after undertaking the background research, it is not always clear exactly what the key issues are and thus what theoretical concepts need operationalising. Sometimes a preliminary enquiry is necessary to focus the research.

For example, a study of student satisfaction with their university experience could address a wide range of issues. These issues could be limited to the classroom experience or widenened to the total student experience. The issues could be decided by the researchers themselves, or they may want to take into account what it is the students are concerned about. To make their student satisfaction survey as relevant to students as possible, Harvey et al. (1997) held focus groups (see Section with students to see what issues they raised and then constructed a questionnaire based on the feedback from the qualitative focus groups. The questionnaire, thus addressed the issues the students thought important.

There are various ways to undertake a preliminary enquiry prior to constructing a survey research instrument. Usually the enquiry is more open and qualitative in nature than the final survey and may involve any of the following:

  1. Focus groups (see Section whether face to face or via telephone or internet (see Section
  2. In-depth interviews (see Section 4.4) whether face-to-face or via telephone or email (see Section
  3. Observation (including casual conversations) (see Section 3)

The purpose of the preliminary study is to get a clearer insight into the key concepts that the research is investigating, with a view to making the operationalisation of the concepts as valid as possible.

Top Operationalisation and validity
In short, the validity (see Section 1.8) of the survey depends upon the operationalisation. If the operationalised concepts do not reflect the theoretical concepts then, no matter how reliably and accurately (see Section 1.9) the data is collected and recorded, the result will have little to do with the research aim.

Referring to political science, Gary King et al. (2004, p. 191) emphasised the importance of adequate measurement and the problem of valid operationalisation:

how to measure concepts researchers know how to define most clearly only with reference to examples—freedom, political efficacy, pornography, health, etc. The advice methodologists usually give when hearing "you know it when you see it" is to find a better, more precise theory and then measurement will be straightforward. This is the right advice, but it leads to a well-known problem in that highly concrete questions about big concepts like these often produce more reliable measurements but not more valid ones.

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