You are on page 1of 7

Constructs in quantitative

research
High quality quantitative dissertations are able to clearly bring together theory, constructs
and variables. Broadly speaking, constructs are the building blocks of theories, helping to
explain how and why certain phenomena behave the way that they do. During the
dissertation process you will need to clearly and precisely explain the theories, constructs,
and variables that you are interested in, as well as explain the relationship between them.
In this article, we focus on constructs. We explain (a) what constructs are, (b) the use of
theoretical or nominal definitions to express the meaning of constructs, and (c) the need to
create operational definition from constructs so that they can be measured. Each of these
aspects of constructs is discussed in turn:

What are constructs?

Expressing the meaning of constructs using theoretical or nominal


definitions

Translating constructs into operational definitions

What are constructs?


Constructs are mental abstractions that we used to express the ideas, people, organisations,
events and/or objects/things that we are interested in. Constructs are a way of bringing
theory down to earth, helping to explain the different components of theories, as well as
measure/observe their behaviour. The table below provides some examples of these
different types of constructs:
Types of constructs Examples
Ideas

Ageism, sexism, racism, self-esteem, poverty, social capital, trust, philanth


affluence, morality, tolerance, air pollution, genetic engineering, euthanasia
taboos

People

Age, gender, ethnicity, height, obesity, morbidity, energy, muscle soreness,

Organisations

Financial performance, corporate social responsibility, firm survival, organis


culture, service quality, corporate governance, outsourcing, alliances

Events

Armageddon, famine, urban regeneration, Jihad, secularism

Objects/Things

Sun, hurricanes, tsunamis, trees, flowers, amino acids, stem cells

The examples above highlight a desire to capture what we mean about something through
the use of just a few words (often only one or two words). Take the following examples:
The meaning we are trying to convey

Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person's age

The problem of obesity - the state of being grossly fat or overweight - among children
The formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become
husband and wife
Extreme scarcity of food

The painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an
irreversible coma

A long, high sea wave caused by an earthquake or other disturbance

NOTE: Definitions are verbatim from Oxford Dictionaries (www.oxforddictionaries.com), a


great online resource.
We often refer to constructs as mental abstractions because seldom are constructs directly
observable (e.g., we cannot directly observe depression, even though we may associate
depression with signs such as a person that often cries, engages in self-harm, has mood
swings, and so forth). Since constructs are very broad and abstract, conceptual clarity has
become one of the cornerstones of good research.
Constructs vary significantly in their complexity. By complexity, we mean the relative
difficulty that people have understanding and measuring (i.e., observing) various constructs.
Some constructs can be very easy to understand/measure (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity,
height), but others are more difficult/complex (e.g., ageism, sexism, racism, self-esteem).
Take the following examples:

C
o
M

Easy to understand and measure:

We know that the construct, sex, has just two attributes in humans: male and
female. If we choose to include the construct, sex, in our research, this would be
relatively easy to justify. After all, most people would associate the construct, sex, as
referring to males or females.

More difficult to understand and measure:


Some constructs that we think we understand, and that we think the reader will
understand, can be more complex than we first thought. For example, take gender.
You often see students include the construct, gender, in questionnaires, giving
respondents just two options (i.e., male and female). This is because the constructs
of sex and gender are often used interchangeably. But social scientists would argue
that gender is a more complex construct, including additional attributes to just male
and female; perhaps including bisexual, homosexual, transsexual, and so forth. In
reality, a significant proportion of constructs are of the more complex type.

This difference in complexity raises two issues: (1) the need to explain to the reader what
you mean when you use a particular construct; and (2) the fact that a construct can have
more than one meaning, highlighting the importance of explaining what the construct
means to you.

Expressing the meaning of constructs using


theoretical or nominal definitions
Constructs provide a common language and shared meaning that help us to communicate
about things clearly and precisely. Imagine a discussion about marriage, having to
continuously explain terms such as divorce, civil partnerships, love, sex, intimacy, religion,
sanctity, cohabitation, engagement, and so forth. Imagine a debate about famine, without
knowing the meaning of other constructs such as starvation, drought, poverty, disaster
relief, food supply, survival, nutrition, aid, and so forth. Without a clear and precise way of
explaining what these constructs mean, we would struggle to communicate to our audience.
Constructs often lack clarity and precision; they are ambiguous. Sometimes in
undergraduate and master?s level dissertations, they are even unstated. However,
constructs need to be expressed (i.e., made explicit) in a way that is clear, precise, and non-

ambiguous, so that they can be shared (i.e., researchers, but also participants, must have a
common understanding; that is, ?speak the same language?, but also reach the same
meaning). Also, constructs need to be made explicit so that they can (a) be criticised, (b)
related to other constructs, (c) operationally defined, and (d) tested (i.e., they are
measurable).
As a result, theoretical or nominal definitions are used to provide conceptual clarity, using
synonyms to express the construct we are interested in. These theoretical or nominal
definitions can be found (a) in academic journals (usually the
Abstract/Introduction/Literature Review; often early on); (b) in subject specific or standard
dictionaries; or (c) created specifically where none exist. Constructs can be expressed using
words (e.g., marriage, depression, hurricanes) or symbolic notations (e.g., % to denote
percentages, to denote the mean). Constructs are also often defined in terms of other
constructs (e.g., the construct, famine, which can be defined as "extreme scarcity of food",
has been defined in terms of two other constructs, scarcity and food). However, some
constructs (e.g., colours, smells, sounds) are more difficult to explain in this way; instead
needing to be explained through direct experiences/sense. Some example theoretical and
nominal definitions are presented in the table below:
Construct

Theoretical or nominal definitions

Ageism

"A process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people becaus


old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this for skin colour and gender" (Butler,
p.35).

Euthanasia

"The painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or
irreversible coma" (Oxford Dictionaries, 2011).

Social capital "The sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available throug
derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit
& Ghoshal, 1998, p.243).
Clarity is also required when setting out the constructs you intend to study because (a) the
meaning/understanding that people get from a construct can be different, and (b)
constructs can be viewed from a number of different perspectives, even when there is
agreement of the meaning of constructs (e.g., intelligence may be viewed in terms of IQ,
but also EI - emotional intelligence - or another perspective).
Construct

Perspectives/approaches towards the construct

Disability

Perspective 1: Bio-medical approach


Views disability as a medical or physical condition that can be prevented or reduc
interventions that are biological, medical or genetic in nature.

Perspective 2: Functional approach


Disability is viewed again as an individual condition, but focus is placed on ways t
functional incapacity this creates.

Perspective 3: Rights-outcome approach


Views disability as a consequence of the way in which society is organised, and th
relationship between society and the individual.
NOTE: Perspectives/approaches to disability from Rioux (1997).
Constructs can also have a number of different dimensions (e.g., the construct,
organisational commitment, is often viewed as consisting of three dimensions - affective
commitment, continuance commitment and normative commitment - which whilst
constructs in their own right, are part of the broader construct, organisational commitment).
Ultimately, we have to make a choice between possible (i.e., multiple) theoretical or nominal
definitions of constructs; we have to settle on a particular definition, but explain: (a) why
we made this choice over definitions that adopt the same/similar approach, in terms of (i)
how it fits with your research agenda and (ii) support for a definition in the literature
amongst other researchers; and (b) how the conceptual definitions relates to other
constructs, whether (i) in the same area or (ii) another conceptual area we are interested
in. It is important to note that despite the need to make choices between conceptual
definitions, there are no right or wrong answers.
Since a conceptual definition only provides the platform for the operational definition that is
used to empirically measure constructs, we discuss about translating constructs into
operational definitions in the next section.

Translating constructs into operational


definitions
Whilst constructs are sometimes mistaken for variables, they are not variables. Instead, we
use variables to operationalize (i.e., measure) the constructs we are interested in.
Constructs can be mistaken for variables because some constructs may only be represented

by one variable, such that the construct name and the variable name are the same (e.g.,
the construct and variable, sex).
Therefore, constructs need to be translated from the abstract (i.e., mental ideas; mental
abstractions) to the concrete (i.e., measureable/testable in the form of variables). In other
words, we are re-stating constructs as variables, with variables also having their own
attributes (e.g., gender having the attributes male/female, which is important, because
gender is a classic example of where constructs/variables, and their attributes, can be
confused). The role of the operational definition is to precisely describe how to measure the
characteristics of a construct. By characteristics, we mean the mental abstractions/ideas
within constructs that ultimately are measureable in the form of variables and their
attributes. It is these variables and their attributes that are measured.
Constructs can be represented by a wide range of variables. For example, happiness could
be associated with love, financial security, cigarettes, puppies, a song, ice cream, and so on.
Translating abstract concepts (e.g., happiness) into concrete variables is not
straightforward. People view constructs in different ways (e.g., in the case of happiness,
people often adopt a perspective that focuses on actions, such as smoking a cigarette, or
possessions, such as owning a diamond, so you need to be clear how you intend to
operationalize a construct, and why you are making such choices).
Translating constructs into operational definitions can be an iterative process, but testing
(i.e., the measurement process) should not start until a conceptual and operational
definition of your construct(s) have been selected (i.e., you cannot have good measurement
without conceptual/operational clarity of constructs).
Ultimately, the operational definition is seldom perfect; that is, the choice of operational
definition may be constrained by factors such as a lack of access to
operational/measurement data. Also, how we construct/formulate an operational definition
will impact on the complexity of the measurement process.

Short definition
What is a construct?

Constructs are latent variables. A latent variable cannot be measured directly, but only
through measurable indicator variables. When it comes to psychological traits, you
cannot simply observe a person and be able to record a measure of these traits. For
example, if you needed a measure of organizational commitment you could not simply
sit a person down and observe their commitment to an organization. Additionally, there
are many reasons that you cannot simply ask a person to self-report their organizational
commitment because of the plethora of problems that occur with self-reporting such as
acquiescence bias. Thus indicator variables, from a survey in our case, are used to form a
construct. Put more simply, using a survey, a researcher could have five (or 3 or 7 or 20)
questions that are used to form a construct of a psychological trait that is unobservable.
While there are many ways to combine indicators to achieve a measure of a construct,
all methods assume that what is being measured is a single entity, even if it is an
abstraction like "efficiency" or "happiness."

More Formally:
A construct provides an efficient and convenient method for labeling a number of
similar behaviors. Through the use of constructs, the observer can begin to classify and
group instances of similar behavior and communicate in compact terms what has been
witnessed.
At a simple level, psychological theory is a statement of the possible relationship
between two psychological constructs, or between a construct and an observable
phenomenon of practical consequence.
Because psychological constructs are abstractions which can only be assessed indirectly,
the design of instruments to measure such variables present major challenges.