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6.2 Conceptualization

Learning Objectives

  1. Define concept.
  2. Describe why defining our concepts is important.
  3. Describe how conceptualization works.
  4. Define dimensions in terms of social scientific measurement.
  5. Describe reification.

In this section we’ll take a look at one of the first steps in the measurement process, conceptualization. This has to do with defining our terms as clearly as possible and also not taking ourselves too seriously in the process. Our definitions mean only what we say they mean—nothing more and nothing less. Let’s talk first about how to define our terms, and then we’ll examine what I mean about not taking ourselves (or our terms, rather) too seriously.

Concepts and Conceptualization

So far the word concept has come up quite a bit, and it would behoove us to make sure we have a shared understanding of that term. A conceptThe notion or image that we conjure up when we think of some cluster of related observations or ideas. is the notion or image that we conjure up when we think of some cluster of related observations or ideas. For example, masculinity is a concept. What do you think of when you hear that word? Presumably you imagine some set of behaviors and perhaps even a particular style of self presentation. Of course, we can’t necessarily assume that everyone conjures up the same set of ideas or images when they hear the word masculinity. In fact, there are many possible ways to define the term. And while some definitions may be more common or have more support than others, there isn’t one true, always-correct-in-all-settings definition. What counts as masculine may shift over time, from culture to culture, and even from individual to individual (Kimmel, 2008).Kimmel, M. (2008). Masculinity. In W. A. Darity Jr. (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (2nd ed., Vol. 5, pp. 1–5). Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA. This is why defining our concepts is so important.

You might be asking yourself why you should bother defining a term for which there is no single, correct definition. Believe it or not, this is true for any concept you might measure in a sociological study—there is never a single, always-correct definition. When we conduct empirical research, our terms mean only what we say they mean—nothing more and nothing less. There’s a New Yorker cartoon that aptly represents this idea ( It depicts a young George Washington holding an ax and standing near a freshly chopped cherry tree. Young George is looking up at a frowning adult who is standing over him, arms crossed. The caption depicts George explaining, “It all depends on how you define ‘chop.’” Young George Washington gets the idea—whether he actually chopped down the cherry tree depends on whether we have a shared understanding of the term chop. Without a shared understanding of this term, our understandings of what George has just done may differ. Likewise, without understanding how a researcher has defined her or his key concepts, it would be nearly impossible to understand the meaning of that researcher’s findings and conclusions. Thus any decision we make based on findings from empirical research should be made based on full knowledge not only of how the research was designed, as described in Chapter 5 "Research Design", but also of how its concepts were defined and measured.

Figure 6.5

Just as the young George Washington, depicted in the cartoon described previously, makes the point that “it all depends on how you define ‘chop,’” sociological researchers understand that how one defines one’s terms will shape the conclusions one is able to draw.

So how do we define our concepts? This is part of the process of measurement, and this portion of the process is called conceptualizationThe process of defining key terms or concepts.. Conceptualization involves writing out clear, concise definitions for our key concepts. Sticking with the previously mentioned example of masculinity, think about what comes to mind when you read that term. How do you know masculinity when you see it? Does it have something to do with men? With social norms? If so, perhaps we could define masculinity as the social norms that men are expected to follow. That seems like a reasonable start, and at this early stage of conceptualization, brainstorming about the images conjured up by concepts and playing around with possible definitions is appropriate. But this is just the first step. It would make sense as well to consult other previous research and theory to understand if other scholars have already defined the concepts we’re interested in. This doesn’t necessarily mean we must use their definitions, but understanding how concepts have been defined in the past will give us an idea about how our conceptualizations compare with the predominant ones out there. Understanding prior definitions of our key concepts will also help us decide whether we plan to challenge those conceptualizations or rely on them for our own work.

If we turn to the literature on masculinity, we will surely come across work by Michael Kimmel, one of the preeminent masculinity scholars in the United States. After consulting Kimmel’s prior work (2000; 2008),Kimmel, M. (2000). The gendered society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Kimmel, M. (2008). Masculinity. In W. A. Darity Jr. (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (2nd ed., Vol. 5, pp. 1–5). Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA. we might tweak our initial definition of masculinity just a bit. Rather than defining masculinity as “the social norms that men are expected to follow,” perhaps instead we’ll define it as “the social roles, behaviors, and meanings prescribed for men in any given society at any one time.” Our revised definition is both more precise and more complex. Rather than simply addressing one aspect of men’s lives (norms), our new definition addresses three aspects: roles, behaviors, and meanings. It also implies that roles, behaviors, and meanings may vary across societies and over time. Thus, to be clear, we’ll also have to specify the particular society and time period we’re investigating as we conceptualize masculinity.

As you can see, conceptualization isn’t quite as simple as merely applying any random definition that we come up with to a term. Sure, it may involve some initial brainstorming, but conceptualization goes beyond that. Once we’ve brainstormed a bit about the images a particular word conjures up for us, we should also consult prior work to understand how others define the term in question. And after we’ve identified a clear definition that we’re happy with, we should make sure that every term used in our definition will make sense to others. Are there terms used within our definition that also need to be defined? If so, our conceptualization is not yet complete. And there is yet another aspect of conceptualization to consider: concept dimensions. We’ll consider that aspect along with an additional word of caution about conceptualization next.

A Word of Caution About Conceptualization

So now that we’ve come up with a clear definition for the term masculinity and made sure that the terms we use in our definition are equally clear, we’re done, right? Not so fast. If you’ve ever met more than one man in your life, you’ve probably noticed that they are not all exactly the same, even if they live in the same society and at the same historical time period. This could mean that there are dimensions of masculinity. In terms of social scientific measurement, concepts can be said to have dimensionsThe multiple elements of a single concept. when there are multiple elements that make up a single concept. With respect to the term masculinity, dimensions could be regional (Is masculinity defined differently in different regions of the same country?), age based (Is masculinity defined differently for men of different ages?), or perhaps power based (Are some forms of masculinity valued more than others?). In any of these cases, the concept masculinity would be considered to have multiple dimensions. While it isn’t necessarily a must to spell out every possible dimension of the concepts you wish to measure, it may be important to do so depending on the goals of your research. The point here is to be aware that some concepts have dimensions and to think about whether and when dimensions may be relevant to the concepts you intend to investigate.

Before we move on to the additional steps involved in the measurement process, it would be wise to caution ourselves about one of the dangers associated with conceptualization. While I’ve suggested that we should consult prior scholarly definitions of our concepts, it would be wrong to assume that just because prior definitions exist that they are any more real than whatever definitions we make up (or, likewise, that our own made-up definitions are any more real than any other definition). It would also be wrong to assume that just because definitions exist for some concept that the concept itself exists beyond some abstract idea in our heads. This idea, assuming that our abstract concepts exist in some concrete, tangible way, is known as reificationAssuming that abstract concepts exist in some concrete, tangible way..

To better understand reification, take a moment to think about the concept of social structure. This concept is central to sociological thinking. When we sociologists talk about social structure, we are talking about an abstract concept. Social structures shape our ways of being in the world and of interacting with one another, but they do not exist in any concrete or tangible way. A social structure isn’t the same thing as other sorts of structures, such as buildings or bridges. Sure, both types of structures are important to how we live our everyday lives, but one we can touch, and the other is just an idea that shapes our way of living.

Here’s another way of thinking about reification: Think about the term family. If you were interested in studying this concept, we’ve learned that it would be good to consult prior theory and research to understand how the term has been conceptualized by others. But we should also question past conceptualizations. Think, for example, about where we’d be today if we used the same definition of family that was used, say, 100 years ago. How have our understandings of this concept changed over time? What role does conceptualization in social scientific research play in our cultural understandings of terms like family? The point is that our terms mean nothing more and nothing less than whatever definition we assign to them. Sure, it makes sense to come to some social agreement about what various concepts mean. Without that agreement, it would be difficult to navigate through everyday living. But at the same time, we should not forget that we have assigned those definitions and that they are no more real than any other, alternative definition we might choose to assign.

Key Takeaways

  • Conceptualization is a process that involves coming up with clear, concise definitions.
  • Some concepts have multiple elements or dimensions.
  • Just because definitions for abstract concepts exist does not mean that the concept is tangible or concrete.


  1. Conceptualize the term discipline and identify possible dimensions of the term. Have someone who is in the class with you do the same thing (without seeing your conceptualization). Now compare what you each came up with. How do your conceptualizations and dimensions differ, and why?
  2. Identify a concept that is important in your area of interest. Challenge yourself to conceptualize the term without first consulting prior literature. Now consult prior work to see how your concept has been conceptualized by others. How and where does your conceptualization differ from others? Are there dimensions of the concept that you or others hadn’t considered?