9.1 Measurement

Learning Objectives

  • Define measurement
  • Describe Kaplan’s three categories of the things that social scientists measure


Recognizing and respecting the importance of measurement will be beneficial in research methods and other areas of life. As someone who prefers to rebel against rules, I learned the hard way that measurement matters. A couple of years ago, I attempted to bake a birthday cake for my wife without the help of any measuring utensils. Since I had baked before, I reasoned that I had a pretty good sense of the difference between a cup and a tablespoon. How hard could it be? As it turns out, it’s not easy guesstimating precise measures. That cake was the lumpiest, most lopsided cake I’ve ever seen and it tasted kind of like Play-Doh. Unfortunately for my wife, I did not take measurement seriously and it showed.


blue measuring tape

Measurement is critical to successful baking as well as successful social scientific research projects. In social science, measurement refers to the process by which we describe and ascribe meaning to the key facts, concepts, or other phenomena that we are investigating. At its core, measurement is about clearly and precisely defining one’s terms. Of course, measurement in social science isn’t quite as simple as using a measuring cup or spoon, but there are some basic tenants on which most social scientists agree when it comes to measurement. We’ll explore those, as well as some of the ways that measurement might vary depending on your unique approach to the study of your topic.

What do social scientists measure?

We can imagine what social scientists measure by thinking about what types of topics and populations they might study. Think about the topics you’ve learned in other social work classes or the topics you’ve considered investigating in your own research. Let’s consider Melissa Milkie and Catharine Warner’s study (2011) [1] of first graders’ mental health. To conduct that study, Milkie and Warner needed to have some idea about how they were going to measure mental health. What does mental health mean, exactly? How do we know when we’re observing someone whose mental health is good and someone whose mental health is compromised? Understanding how measurement works in research methods helps us answer these sorts of questions.

As you might have guessed, social scientists will measure just about anything that they have an interest in investigating. For example, those who are interested in learning about the correlation between social class and levels of happiness must develop some way to measure both social class and happiness. Those who wish to understand how well immigrants cope in their new locations must measure immigrant status and coping. Those who wish to understand how a person’s gender shapes their workplace experiences must measure gender and workplace experiences. You get the idea. While social scientists can measure just about anything they wish to observe or study, some things are easier to observe or measure than others.

In 1964, philosopher Abraham Kaplan (1964) [2] wrote The Conduct of Inquiry, which has since become a classic work in research methodology (Babbie, 2010). [3] In his text, Kaplan describes different categories of things that behavioral scientists observe. One of those categories, which Kaplan called “observational terms,” is probably the simplest to measure in social science. Observational terms are the sorts of things that we can see with the naked eye simply by looking at them. They are terms that “lend themselves to easy and confident verification” (Kaplan, 1964, p. 54). If we wanted to know how playground conditions differ across neighborhoods, then we could directly observe the variety, amount, and condition of equipment at various playgrounds.


three people sitting on a bench in front of a wall composed of different people's photographs

Indirect observables, on the other hand, are less straightforward to assess. They are “terms whose application calls for relatively more subtle, complex, or indirect observations, in which inferences play an acknowledged part. Such inferences concern presumed connections, usually causal, between what is directly observed and what the term signifies” (Kaplan, 1964, p. 55). If we conducted a study that required information on participant income, we’d probably have to ask participants about their income in an interview or a survey. Thus, we have observed income, even if it has only been observed indirectly. Birthplace might be another indirect observable. We can ask study participants in the place that they were born, but chances are we won’t have directly observed any of those people being born in the locations they report.

Sometimes the measures that we are interested in are more complex and more abstract than observational terms or indirect observables. Think about some of the concepts you’ve learned about in other social work classes—for example, ethnocentrism. What is ethnocentrism? Well, from completing an introduction to social work class you might know that it has something to do with the way a person judges another’s culture. But how would you measure it? Here’s another construct: bureaucracy. We know this term has something to do with organizations and how they operate but measuring such a construct is trickier than measuring something like a person’s income. The theoretical notions of ethnocentrism and bureaucracy represent ideas whose meanings we have come to agree on. Though we may not be able to observe these abstractions directly, we can observe their components.

Kaplan referred to these more abstract things that behavioral scientists measure as constructs. Constructs are “not observational either directly or indirectly” (Kaplan, 1964, p. 55), but they can be defined based on observables. For example, the construct of bureaucracy could be measured by counting the number of supervisors that need to approve routine spending by public administrators. The greater the number of administrators that must sign off on routine matters, the greater the degree of bureaucracy. Similarly, we might be able to ask a person the degree to which they trust people from different cultures around the world and then assess the ethnocentrism inherent in their answers. We can measure constructs like bureaucracy and ethnocentrism by defining them in terms of what we can observe.

Thus far, we have learned that social scientists measure what Kaplan called observational terms, indirect observables, and constructs. These terms refer to the different things that social scientists may be interested in measuring, but how do they measure these things?

How do social scientists measure?

Measurement in social science is a process. It occurs at multiple stages of a research project: in the planning stages, in the data collection stage, and sometimes even in the analysis stage. Recall that previously we defined measurement as the process by which we describe and ascribe meaning to the key facts, concepts, or other phenomena that we are investigating. Once we’ve identified a research question, we consider the key ideas we hope to learn from our project. In describing those key ideas, we begin the measurement process.

Let’s say that our research question is the following: How do new college students cope with the adjustment to college? In order to answer this question, we’ll need some idea about what coping means. We may come up with an idea about what coping means early in the research process, as we begin to think about what to look for (or observe) in our data-collection phase. Once we’ve collected data on coping, we also have to decide how to report on the topic. Perhaps, for example, there are different types or dimensions of coping, some of which lead to more successful adjustment than others. Regardless of how we decide to proceed and what we decide to report, measurement is important at each of these key phases in the research process.

As the preceding example demonstrates, measurement is a process because it occurs at multiple stages of conducting research. Additionally, the process of measurement itself involves multiple stages, including identifying, defining, and observing your key terms, as well as deciding whether your observations are useful. An additional step in the measurement process involves deciding what elements your measures contain. A measure’s elements might be very straightforward and clear, particularly if they are directly observable. Other measures are more complex and might require the researcher to account for different themes or types. These sorts of complexities require careful attention to a concept’s level of measurement and its dimensions. We’ll explore these complexities in greater depth at the end of this chapter, but first let’s look more closely at the early steps involved in the measurement process, starting with conceptualization.


Key Takeaways

  • Measurement is the process by which we describe and ascribe meaning to the key facts, concepts, or other phenomena that we are investigating.
  • Kaplan identified three categories of things that social scientists measure including observational terms, indirect observables, and constructs.
  • Measurement occurs at all stages of research.



Constructs– concepts that are not observable but can be defined based on observable characteristics

Indirect observables– things that require indirect observation and inference to measure

Measurement– the process by which researchers describe and ascribe meaning to the key facts, concepts, or other phenomena they are investigating

Observational terms– things that we can see with the naked eye simply by looking at them


Image attributions

measuring tape by unknown CC-0

human observer by geralt CC-0


  1. Milkie, M. A., & Warner, C. H. (2011). Classroom learning environments and the mental health of first grade children. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52, 4–22.
  2. Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company.
  3. Earl Babbie offers a more detailed discussion of Kaplan’s work in his text. You can read it in: Babbie, E. (2010). The practice of social research (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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