Operationalize variables (A 3 point guide)

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In this article, we’ll discuss what it means to “Operationalize Variables”.

We will also discuss what are variables, what are the various kinds of variables, and what operationalization in research means and why it is important. 

What does it mean to operationalize a variable?

To operationalize a variable is to take a concept that is not directly measurable and identify various procedures that can be used to measure and gather data- simply turning to concept into a measurable variable. 

For example, the experience of social anxiety which is not directly measurable is turned into self rating scores, behavioral patterns, and physical symptoms measurements. 

Operationalization process involves three steps:

  • Identification of variables
  • Conceptualization
  • Operationalization 

The process of defining an operational variable also has three key components:

  • the variable being measured
  • the measure you will use
  • how you plan to interpret the results of that measure.

What are variables?

A variable in research simply refers to the subject or object such as a person, place, thing, or phenomenon that you are trying to measure. 

A research variable also refers to any variable that has some kind of cause and effect relationship and is something that we are trying to measure, manipulate, study, and control. 

Variables in research are of various kinds:

  • Dependent Variable which is dependent on other factors that are being measured, these variables are expected to change as a result of manipulation. 
  • Independent Variable which is stable and unaffected by the other variables you are trying to measure. It is the variable that is systematically manipulated and is presumed the cause. 
  • Control variables are those variables that are held constant throughout the experiment.
  • Confounding variables is one that hides the true effect of another variable in your experiment. Usually happens when a closely related variable is present to the variable that is desired and studied. 
  • Latent variables is one that can’t be directly measured, but that you represent via a proxy.
  • Composite variables which is a combination of multiple variables in an experiment often created during the analysis of data and not measurement. 

What is the process of operationalization?

Operationalization is the process by which researchers conducting a study or research takes a concept and attempts to turn it into a measurable variable. 

It involves the process of determining exactly how the concept is to be measurem what tools are to be used,and what procedures are to be followed. 

This is usually done in the case of quantitative research where concepts are often measured quantitatively. 

The process of operationalization involves three steps:

  • Identification of the specific indicators that represent the concept that is to be studied for example, if we are studying the concept of masculinity, one indicator could be the idea that “breadwinning” is a masculine trait. Hence “breadwinner” becomes the indicator of the concept. 
  • Conceptualization is the next step where you use various theories that will point you in the direction that is relevant to your indicators and also additional concepts. This process will also give you an understanding of how some important concepts in an area have been measured in the past and what sorts of indicators have been used. It also helps you define the concepts in the larger framework of research. 
  • Operationalization consists of the following components:

First you start by identifying the variable  which is fairly easy and can be found within your research question itself. 

Second, you will need to identify a good measure that you can use to measure your variable. These measures must be specific and clear and can be something that you use pre or post the manipulation done on the variables. 

Final stage of operationalization involves setting the blueprint of how the scale works and how the researcher interprets the results of the scales. For various scales that have been developed and published, they usually come with information provided by the authors as to how one can interpret the results. 

If you can’t find enough information from the scale’s author, you can look at how the results of that scale are reported in the results section of research articles that has been done by other authors and studies.

Why is Operationalization important?

In order to conduct quantitative research, variables must be precisely define and at times certain concepts that have not been defined prior need to be operationalized so that they can be measured, scaled, and researched. 

Operationalization is important because it allows researchers to use solid measuring strategies, allows for an exact method to be used and also allows for the recreation of the study by other researchers for different samples and context.

A failure in operationalization means that the units that were used and the measurement that was done cannot be reapplied for further study and lead to errors in the field of research and the further development of academic knowledge. 


In this guide we discussed what operational variables are. We also discussed what are dependent and independent variables and what operationalization is.


Bevans.R. Understanding types of variables. Scriblr. Published on November 21, 2019 Retrieved 23rd november 2021. https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/types-of-variables/

Cramer, Duncan and Dennis Howitt. The SAGE Dictionary of Statistics. London: SAGE, 2004

Scientific Inquiry in Social Work (DeCarlo). (2021, April 29). Radford University. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/25594

Stephanie Glen. “Research Variable / Study Variable” From StatisticsHowTo.com: Elementary Statistics for the rest of us! https://www.statisticshowto.com/research-variable-study/

Shuttleworth. M.Operationalization. Explorable. Retrieved on 23rd November 2021. https://explorable.com/operationalization

FAQ about Operationalize Variables

What is an example of operationalization?

An example of operationalization is the process with which the experience of social anxiety which is not directly measurable is turned into self rating scores, behavioral patterns, and physical symptoms measurements. 

What is to operationalize a variable?

To operationalize a variable is to define abstract concepts into measurable factors- to make them qualitative and empirical. 

What are the 3 types of variables?

An experiment usually has three kinds of variables: independent, dependent, and controlled.

What is operationalization in research?

The operationalization is the process through which the researcher converts the various dimensions of a concept into directly measurable entities.

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