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7: Scale Reliability and Validity

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    The previous chapter examined some of the difficulties with measuring constructs in social science research. For instance, how do we know whether we are measuring “compassion” and not the “empathy”, since both constructs are somewhat similar in meaning? Or is compassion the same thing as empathy? What makes it more complex is that sometimes these constructs are imaginary concepts (i.e., they don’t exist in reality), and multi-dimensional (in which case, we have the added problem of identifying their constituent dimensions). Hence, it is not adequate just to measure social science constructs using any scale that we prefer. We also must test these scales to ensure that: (1) these scales indeed measure the unobservable construct that we wanted to measure (i.e., the scales are “valid”), and (2) they measure the intended construct consistently and precisely (i.e., the scales are “reliable”). Reliability and validity, jointly called the “psychometric properties” of measurement scales, are the yardsticks against which the adequacy and accuracy of our measurement procedures are evaluated in scientific research.

    A measure can be reliable but not valid, if it is measuring something very consistently but is consistently measuring the wrong construct. Likewise, a measure can be valid but not reliable if it is measuring the right construct, but not doing so in a consistent manner. Using the analogy of a shooting target, as shown in Figure 7.1, a multiple-item measure of a construct that is both reliable and valid consists of shots that clustered within a narrow range near the center of the target. A measure that is valid but not reliable will consist of shots centered on the target but not clustered within a narrow range, but rather scattered around the target. Finally, a measure that is reliable but not valid will consist of shots clustered within a narrow range but off from the target. Hence, reliability and validity are both needed to assure adequate measurement of the constructs of interest.

    Figure 7.1. Comparison of reliability and validity

    7: Scale Reliability and Validity is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anol Bhattacherjee (Global Text Project) .

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