# 2.1A: Defining the Problem

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Defining a sociological problem helps frame a question to be addressed in the research process.

Learning Objectives

• Explain how the definition of the problem relates to the research process

## Key Points

• The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within the context of a particular test but also broad enough to have a more general practical or theoretical merit.
• For many sociologists, the goal is to conduct research which may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, while others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes. Subject matter ranges from the micro level to the macro level.
• Like other sciences, sociology relies on the systematic, careful collection of measurements or counts of relevant quantities to be considered valid. Given that sociology deals with topics that are often difficult to measure, this generally involves operationalizing relevant terms.

## Key Terms

• operational definition: A showing of something — such as a variable, term, or object — in terms of the specific process or set of validation tests used to determine its presence and quantity.
• operationalization: In humanities, operationalization is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept clearly distinguishable or measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations.

Defining the problem is necessarily the first step of the research process. After the problem and research question is defined, scientists generally gather information and other observations, form hypotheses, test hypotheses by collecting data in a reproducible manner, analyze and interpret that data, and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypotheses.

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within the context of a particular test but also broad enough to have a more general practical or theoretical merit. For many sociologists, the goal is to conduct research which may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, while others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes. Subject matter ranges from the micro level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and the social structure.

Like other sciences, sociology relies on the systematic, careful collection of measurements or counts of relevant quantities to be considered valid. Given that sociology deals with topics that are often difficult to measure, this generally involves operationalizing relevant terms. Operationalization is a process that describes or defines a concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it, as opposed to some more vague, inexact, or idealized definition. The operational definition thus identifies an observable condition of the concept. By operationalizing a variable of the concept, all researchers can collect data in a systematic or replicable manner.

For example, intelligence cannot be directly quantified. We cannot say, simply by observing, exactly how much more intelligent one person is than another. But we can operationalize intelligence in various ways. For instance, we might administer an IQ test, which uses specific types of questions and scoring processes to give a quantitative measure of intelligence. Or we might use years of education as a way to operationalize intelligence, assuming that a person with more years of education is also more intelligent. Of course, others might dispute the validity of these operational definitions of intelligence by arguing that IQ or years of education are not good measures of intelligence. After all, a very intelligent person may not have the means or inclination to pursue higher education, or a less intelligent person may stay in school longer because they have trouble completing graduation requirements. In most cases, the way we choose to operationalize variables can be contested; few operational definitions are perfect. But we must use the best approximation we can in order to have some sort of measurable quantity for otherwise unmeasurable variables.

Operationalizing Variables: This video discusses what it means to operationalize a variable using the example of “good health. ”

2.1A: Defining the Problem is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.