Avoiding Naive Operationalism: More on Lee Cronbach and Improving Analytics


Consider again Cronbach and Meehl’s (1955) quote from my last post.
We do believe that it is imperative that psychologists make a place for (construct validity) in their methodological thinking, so that its rationale, its scientific legitimacy, and its dangers may become explicit and familiar. This would be preferable to the widespread current tendency to engage in what actually amounts to construct validation research and use of constructs in practical testing, while talking an “operational” methodology which, if adopted, would force research into a mold it does not fit.  (Emphasis added)
What was widespread in 1955 has not substantially changed today.  Construct measures are routinely developed without regards to their construct or consequential validity, and it is in detriment to our practices.  I will name this state, naive operationalism; measuring constructs with what amounts to an operational methodology.  I will also show why it is a problem.

Operational Methodology: Its Origins as a Philosophical Concept

What do Cronbach & Meehl mean by an operational methodology?  Early in my psychological studies I heard the definition of intelligence stated as “that which is measured by an intelligence test”.  It was an example of operationalism (or operationism). Originally conceived by a physicist named Percy Bridgman, operationalism conceptually states that the meaning of a term is wholly defined by its method of measurement.  It became popular as a way to replace metaphysical terms (eg. desire or anger) with a radical empirical definition.  It was briefly adopted by the logical positivist school of philosophy because of its similarity to the verification theory of meaning. It also became popular for a longer time period in psychology and the social sciences.  Neither use stood up to scrutiny as noted in Mark Bickhard’s paper.
Positivism failed, and it lies behind many of the reasons that operationalism is so pernicious: the radical empiricism of operationalism makes it difficult to understand how science does, in fact, involve theoretical and metaphysical assumptions, and must involve them, and thereby makes it difficult to think about and to critique those assumptions.
Not only does the creation of any measurement contains many underlying assumptions, the meaning of any measurement is also a by-product of the uses to which the measurement is put.  The heart of validity theory in the work of Cronbach (and also in Samuel Messick), is in analyzing various measurement assumptions and measurement uses through the concepts of construct and consequential validity.  Modern validity theory stands opposed to operationalism.

Operational Definition as a Pragmatic Psychometric Concept

Specifying an operational definition of a measure is operationalism backwards.  Our measurements operationalizes how we are defining a term, not in the abstract, but in actual practice.  When we implement a measurement in practice, that measurement effectively becomes the construct definition in any processes that involves that measure.  If the process contains multiple measures, it is only a partial definition.  If it is the sole measure, it also becomes the sole construction definition.  Any measure serves as an operational definition of the measured construct in practice, but we don’t believe (as in operationalism) that the measures will subsume the full meaning of any construct.  Our operational definition is no more than a partial definition and that is why consequential and construct validity are needed in our methodological thinking.  Validity research tell us when our operational definitions are problematic and may give us indication as to how to make improvements to our measures.  Validity research studies the difference between our operational definitions and the construct being measured.

Naive Operationalism

For most of us, operationalization outside the larger issue of a research question and conceptual framework is just not very interesting.
I could not disagree more! Not including validity in our methodological thinking will mean that our operationalized processes will result in what I will call naive operationalism.  If we devise and implement measures in practice, without regard for their validity, we will also fail to understand any underlying assumptions and will be unable to address any validity problems.  In effect, it is just like philosophical operationalism and sets us up for the same problems. Lets consider a concrete example to see how it can become a problem.

An Example of Naive Operationalism

Richard Nantel and Andy Porter both suggests that we do away with Performance Measurement, which is considered “a Complete Waste of Time”.  These are the reasons given for scrapping performance measurement:
  1. Short term or semiannual performance  reviews preventing big picture thinking, long-term risk taking and innovation. We want employees to fail early and often.
  2. Performance systems encourage less frequent feedback and interferes with real-time learning.
  3. Compensation and reward systems are based on faulty  incentive premises and undermining intrinsic motivation.
  4. There’s no evidence that performance rating systems improve performance.
Consider each reason in turn
  1. This critique is advocating for a different set of constructs.  True, the constructs they imply may not be common to most performance measurement systems, but there is no reason to stay with standard constructs if they are not a good fit.
  2. There is no reason why formative assessments like action analytics and other more appropriate feedback structures could be a part of any performance improvement systems.
  3. This is another instance where it appears that the wrong constructs, based on out of date motivational theories, are being measured.  They are the wrong constructs and therefore the wrong measures.
  4. The consequences of any measurement systems is the most important question to ask.  Anyone who doesn’t ask this questions should not be managing measurement processes.


What is the bottom line?  There is nothing Richard or Andy point out  that would make the concept of performance measurement wrong.  The measurement systems they describe are guilty of naive operationalism.  The idea that any specific measure of performance is the sole operational definition needed and this is true even they are unaware of what they are doing.  No!  We should assess the validity of any measurement system and adjust according to an integrated view of validity within an appropriate theoretical and propositional network as advocated by Cronbach and Meehl.  Measurement systems of any kind should be based on construct and consequential validity, not an operational methodology, whether it is philosophical or naive.