Understanding the language of research – Concept, Constructs, Definition

When we do research, we want to know what is in order to understand, explain, and predict phenomena. We may want to answer the question, "How will the department respond to the new flexible work schedule?" or "Why did the stock price skyrocket when all normal indicators suggested it would go down?" In answering such questions, we need to agree on definitions. Which members of the department: clerks or professionals? What kind of response? What are normal indicators? These questions require the use of concepts, constructs, and definitions.


  • To understand and communicate information about objects and events, there must be a common ground on which to do it. Concepts serve this purpose.
  • A concept is a generally accepted collection of meanings or characteristics associated with certain events, objects, conditions, situations, and behaviors.
  • Classifying and categorizing objects or events that have common characteristics beyond any single
  • observation creates concepts.
  • When you think of a spreadsheet or a warranty card, what comes to mind is not a single example but your collected memories of all spreadsheets and warranty cards, from which you abstract a set of specific and definable characteristic.

We abstract such meanings from our experiences and use words as labels to designate them. For example, we see a man passing and identify that he is running, walking, skipping, crawling, or hopping.

These movements all represent concepts. We also have abstracted certain visual elements by which we
identify that the moving object is an adult male, rather than an adult female or a truck or a horse. We
use numerous concepts daily in our thinking, conversing, and other activities.

Sources of Concepts

Concepts that are in frequent and general use have been developed over time through shared language usage. We acquire them through personal experience.

Ordinary concepts make up the bulk of communication even in research, but we often run into difficulty trying to deal with an uncommon concept or a newly advanced idea.

One way to handle this problem is to borrow from other languages (e.g., gestalt ) or to borrow from other fields (e.g., from art, impressionism ). The concept of gravitation is borrowed from physics and used in marketing in an attempt to explain why people shop where they do.

The concept of distance is used in attitude measurement to describe degree of variability between the attitudes of two or more persons. Threshold is used effectively to describe a concept about the way we perceive.

Sometimes we need to adopt new meanings for words (make a word cover a different concept) or develop new labels for concepts. The recent broadening of the meaning of model is an example of the  first instance; the development of concepts such as sibling and status-stress is an example of the second. 

When we adopt new meanings or develop new labels, we begin to develop a specialized jargon or terminology. Jargon no doubt contributes to efficiency of communication among specialists, but it excludes everyone else.

Importance to Research

In research, special problems grow out of the need for concept precision and inventiveness. We design hy-
hypotheses using concepts. We devise measurement concepts by which to test these hypothetical statements. We gather data using these measurement concepts. The success of research hinges on

(1) how clearly we conceptualize and

(2) how well others understand the concepts we use. For example, when we survey people on the question  of customer loyalty, the questions we use need to tap faithfully the attitudes of the participants. Attitudes are abstract, yet we must attempt to measure them using carefully selected concepts.

The challenge is to develop concepts that others will clearly understand. We might, for example, ask
participants for an estimate of their family’s total income. This may seem to be a simple, unambiguous
concept, but we will receive varying and confusing answers unless we restrict or narrow the concept
by specifying:

  • Time period, such as weekly, monthly, or annually. 
  • Before or after income taxes.
  • For head of family only or for all family members. 
  • For salary and wages only or also for dividends, interest, and capital gains. 
  • Income in kind, such as free rent, employee discounts, or food stamps

 2. Constructs 

A construct is an image or abstract idea specifically invented for a given research and/or theory-building purpose. We build constructs by combining the simpler, more concrete concepts, especially when the idea or image we intend to convey is not subject to direct observation.

Constructs are broad concepts or topics for a study. Constructs can be conceptually defined in that they have meaning in theoretical terms. They can be abstract and do not necessarily need to be directly observable. Examples of constructs include intelligence or life satisfaction.

In the philosophy of science, particularly in reference to scientific theories, a hypothetical construct is an explanatory variable which is not directly observable. For example, the concepts of intelligence and motivation are used to explain phenomena in psychology, but neither is directly observable.

Constructs are measured with multiple variables. Constructs exist at a higher level of abstraction than concepts. Justice, Beauty, Happiness, and Health are all constructs. Constructs are considered latent variable because they cannot be directly observable or measured. Typical constructs in marketing research include Brand Loyalty, Purchase Intent, and Customer Satisfaction. Constructs are the basis of working hypotheses.

Brand loyalty is a construct that marketing researchers study often. Brand loyalty can be measured using a variety of measures:

  1. Number of items purchased in the past
  2. Monetary value of past purchases
  3. Frequency of past purchase occasions
  4. The likelihood of future purchases
  5. The likelihood of recommending the brand to a friend or family member
  6. The likelihood of switching to a competitive brand

3. Definitions

Confusion about the meaning of concepts can destroy a research study’s value without the researcher
or client even knowing it. If words have different meanings to the parties involved, then the parties are
not communicating well. Definitions are one way to reduce this danger.


Researchers struggle with two types of defi nitions: dictionary defi nitions and operational defi nitions.

a) In the more familiar dictionary definition, a concept is defined with a synonym.

b) Operational Definitions

An operational definition is a definition stated in terms of specific criteria for testing or measurement.
These terms must refer to empirical standards (i.e., we must be able to count, measure, or in some other
way gather the information through our senses). Whether the object to be defined is physical (e.g., a
can of soup) or highly abstract (e.g., achievement motivation), the definition must specify the charac- teristics and how they are to be observed. The specifications and procedures must be so clear that any
competent person using them would classify the object in the same way.

Operational defi nitions may vary, depending on your purpose and the way you choose to measure


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