Conceptualization is the mental process by which fuzzy and imprecise constructs (concepts) and their constituent components are defined in concrete and precise terms. For instance, we often use the word “prejudice” and the word conjures a certain image in our mind; however, we may struggle if we were asked to define exactly what the term meant. If someone says bad things about other racial groups, is that racial prejudice? If women earn less than men for the same job, is that gender prejudice? If churchgoers believe that non-believers will burn in hell, is that religious prejudice? Are there different kinds of prejudice, and if so, what are they? Are there different levels of prejudice, such as high or low? Answering all of these questions is the key to measuring the prejudice construct correctly. The process of understanding what is included and what is excluded in the concept of prejudice is the conceptualization process.
The conceptualization process is all the more important because of the imprecision, vagueness, and ambiguity of many social science constructs. For instance, is “compassion” the same thing as “empathy” or “sentimentality”? If you have a proposition stating that “compassion is positively related to empathy”, you cannot test that proposition unless you can conceptually separate empathy from compassion and then empirically measure these two very similar constructs correctly. If deeply religious people believe that some members of their society, such as nonbelievers, gays, and abortion doctors, will burn in hell for their sins, and forcefully try to change the “sinners” behaviors to prevent them from going to hell, are they acting in a prejudicial manner or a compassionate manner? Our definition of such constructs is not based on any objective criterion, but rather on a shared (“inter-subjective”) agreement between our mental images (conceptions) of these constructs.
While defining constructs such as prejudice or compassion, we must understand that sometimes, these constructs are not real or can exist independently, but are simply imaginary creations in our mind. For instance, there may be certain tribes in the world who lack prejudice and who cannot even imagine what this concept entails. But in real life, we tend to treat this concept as real. The process of regarding mental constructs as real is called reification, which is central to defining constructs and identifying measurable variables for measuring them.
One important decision in conceptualizing constructs is specifying whether they are unidimensional and multidimensional. Unidimensional constructs are those that are expected to have a single underlying dimension. These constructs can be measured using a single measure or test. Examples include simple constructs such as a person’s weight, wind speed, and probably even complex constructs like self-esteem (if we conceptualize self-esteem as consisting of a single dimension, which of course, may be a unrealistic assumption). Multidimensional constructs consist of two or more underlying dimensions. For instance, if we conceptualize a person’s academic aptitude as consisting of two dimensions – mathematical and verbal ability – then academic aptitude is a multidimensional construct. Each of the underlying dimensions in this case must be measured separately, say, using different tests for mathematical and verbal ability, and the two scores can be combined, possibly in a weighted manner, to create an overall value for the academic aptitude construct.