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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q077-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

‘Operationalism’, coined by the physicist Percy W. Bridgman (1927), has come to designate a loosely connected body of similar but conflicting views about how scientific theories or concepts are connected to reality or observation via various measurement and other procedures. Examples of an operation would be the procedure of laying a standard yardstick along the edge of a surface to measure length or using psychometric tests to measure sexual orientation. In the 1920–50s different versions of operationalism were produced by, amongst others: Bridgman, who was concerned with the ontology of basic units in physics; behaviourists such as E.C. Tolman, S.S. Stevens, who were concerned with the measurement of intervening variables or hypothetical constructs not accessible to direct observation, as well as B.F. Skinner, who sought to eliminate such nonobservables; and positivistic philosophers of science who were analysing the meaning of terms in scientific language. Conflation of their different operationalist philosophies has led to a great deal of nonsense about operational definition, methodology of observation and experiment, and the meaning of scientific concepts. Operationalist doctrines were most influential in the social sciences, and today the primary legacy is the practice of operationally defining abstract social science concepts as measurable variables.

Citing this article:
Suppe, Frederick. Operationalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q077-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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