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Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize key methods of measurement.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. And welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. The topic of today's lesson is measurement.

A lot of things happen out there in the social world. There's a lot of people acting. There's a lot of categories that various people fall into that make part of broader structures and institutions. So measurement, homing in on these things happening in the social world, is a really important part of the research process that we can't overlook. So we're going to talk about how we get from broad happenings like that down to variables, concepts, and measurement of those specific variables and concepts so we can learn something about what happens in the social world around us.

I want to start this lesson defining concept, and specifically the sociological concept. A concept is something that sociologists use to understand the world. Like class, for example. But class, though, is, in reality, a very complex thing with much debate about how to define it. Some people think class could be defined by occupation, whether you're, say, a lawyer or a mechanic. Other people think class could be defined by an income level. And still others think class could be defined by tastes and preferences, take a more consumption side approach to defining class. And yet, there's even some sociologists that will say the concept isn't even relevant. But nonetheless, it's hard to argue that class is not something, however vaguely defined, out there.

So class, then, is a concept. That's what we're doing with sociological concept-making, is we're trying to represent complex reality in a more simple form that we can work with. So a concept is good to think with. It's good to do research with.

Many concepts can become variables, and variables are characteristics, such as class or age, income level, education, whether or not you're married or single. Things like that that vary throughout the population as a whole, things that can change. So homing in on particular variables allows us to isolate them and analyze their influence, which is what we want to do in social research.

There are two kinds of variables, independent variables and dependent variables. And sociologists are often interested in the relationship between them. An independent variable can be thought of as the cause. It's the driving force, the part that changes or changes to produce an outcome in the dependent variable. So the dependent variable, then, is the effect. It's the outcome affected by the movement in the independent variable. It is dependent on it. That's a good way to think of it.

So now let's take an example that ties concept into variable, how we measure those to produce validity. Suppose I want to know how class transfers from parents to children. If you're born into the upper class, will you stay there? Or likewise, if you're born into the lower class, will you stay there? What chances do you have for advancement? How likely is it that you will advance?

So class you're born into, then, is the independent variable. And the class you achieve an adult life is the dependent variable in this example. So we have the concept of class, and we have our variables. How do we get the thorny issue of measuring class, a concept that's kind of fuzzy? So before I start, I need to decide how I'm going to measure it. Should I do it by income level? What about occupation? Like I said, lawyer or mechanic? Should I do it by cultural factors, tastes and preferences? Whether I like to consume certain foods, whether I do certain cultural activities. Some people define class that way. These are all issues which come up with respect to measurement, or the process of determining how to value a variable.

For the sake of this example, I'm going to choose income level. That's a way we can measure class. Income level. The income level of your parents is your independent variable, and the income level that you achieve in adult life is the dependent variable in this example. OK. Now I've decided that income level is the best way to measure the concept of class and operationalize it, make it into a variable. So once I've decided that, I need to make sure I focus on what sociologists call reliability, which is consistency in the measurement of variables.

So to give you an example of reliability, what if I measured some people's class by their occupation and other people's by their consumption patterns and still others by their occupations? These are all legitimate, in their own right, ways to measure class, but jumping around would not be consistent. I would not be reliable.

Validity is the final issue in measurement. Validity is actually measuring what you set out to capture. Suppose I find that income level really isn't the best way to measure class. So we have a lawyer and a mechanic. But this mechanic owns his own mechanic shop. And because of it, he still works on cars. He's a mechanic, but he makes $100,000 a year. And then on the other side, we have a criminal defense attorney who's making $60,000 a year. So it kind of blurs the class lines there. The old way to define class in terms of your occupation-- a lawyer, a more prestigious, more socially honorable position-- doesn't necessarily mean you have more income. So we might say income is not the best way to measure class. So my study, then, would not be a valid representation of the concept of class operating within American society.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed learning about sociological concepts, variables, both dependent and independent, measurement, how we go about measuring these constants and variables, as well as the ideas of reliability and validity. Thank you for joining me, and have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

A simplified, working representation of the social world; i.e. "class" or "family."

Dependent Variable

The "effect" or the outcome of the change in the independent variable.

Independent Variable

The "cause" driving the change in the dependent variable.


The process of determining the value of a variable.


Consistency in the valuation of a variable.


Actually measuring the data the you set out to capture.


A characteristic such as age, class, income, education, ect.. that varies throughout the population as a whole.