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The Processes Of Conceptualisation And Operationalisation Social Work Essay

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This paper will begin by examining what is meant by conceptualisation. Using examples, it will demonstrate how broad theories are narrowed down to mid-range theories showing how this refinement can aid a practical and achievable study, within a realistic timeframe. This essay will then introduce the process of operationalisation and explain how variables and indicators are used as aids in specifying exactly what is being observed. The subject of child abuse will be used throughout the paper where different appropriate examples will be used to clarify meaning. Two reports in particular, The Murphy Report (2009) and The Ryan Report (2009) both child abuse studies will be used.

This essay will further clarify the conceptualisation and operationalisation processes by outlining the three main steps involved. These steps will be explained and examples of their use in research studies will be demonstrated. In all research studies great emphasis is placed on the accuracy of information presented. As such, reliability and validity will be briefly discussed at the concluding section on indicators. This paper will then present a summary of the main points of this essay. To conclude, this paper will emphasise the importance of employing the processes of conceptualisation and operationalisation to a research study.

Social researchers are concerned with examining the relationship between human interactions of people and the society in which they live in. It is not possible however, to do a broad study on human interactions and society in one research project. Researchers therefore, will concentrate on a specific aspect of some social issue. This process begins with a definition of the chosen topic, for example assuming the topic was based on poverty. There are different elements that need to be considered. Poverty could include income poverty, living conditions, diet or any other element that prohibits people from fully partaking in society (Lister, 2004).

Before a study begins, the researcher should ideally determine what aspect of poverty is to be examined. It may be for example, the impact of a reduction in child benefit to families already living below meridian income level. Here a researcher may concentrate his or her study on how even lower income further prohibits families from fully participating in society. In this case the researcher may use the theory of social exclusion. However, social exclusion is a very broad concept and researchers will generally look at other, mid range theories or form their own, for example, reducing benefits to lower income families can have effects on children's health. Having determined which aspect of poverty to study, the researcher will then decide what it is, and what it is not, they are trying to find out. This process is part of what is termed conceptualisation (Geraghty, 2008).

Conceptualisation is the process of narrowing down, confining, defining and explaining, what it is, that is being examined. It is concerned with what is meant by a term (Geraghty, 2008). In undertaking research studies, the researcher has to be clear about what aspect of a social phenomenon is being studied. Just as importantly, the completed study must also demonstrate to the readers, that the study has dealt with and answered the specific starting research question. To demonstrate what has been explained thus far, this essay will take an appropriate example to convey more clearly how conceptualisation works.

In Ireland over the last two decades there has been extensive media focus and attention on Child Abuse. Considering child abuse as a research study, it is important to understand the scale and scope of the topic. One of the first things to be considered is the definition of child abuse. As the example is taken from an Irish context, it is appropriate to quote 'The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act, 2000' which states child abuse as:

'The wilful, reckless or negligent infliction of physical injury on, or failure to prevent such injury to, the child.

The use of the child by a person for sexual arousal or sexual gratification of that person or another person.

Failure to care for the child, which results in serious impairment of the physical or mental health or development of the child or serious adverse effects on his or her behaviour or welfare.

Any other act or omission towards the child which results in serious impairment of the physical or mental health or development of the child or serious adverse effects on his or her behaviour or welfare.' (The Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse Act, 2000 ).

From this definition it can be deducted, there are four main types of abuse that constitute the concept of Child Abuse in Ireland. These are physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. In undertaking research on Child Abuse, the researcher may confine the study to one aspect, such as neglect. This may be further refined by looking at a hypothesis or theory of neglect as a topic such as, the impact of parental drug dependency on Irish children within the family. By narrowing down and focussing on specific research questions related to the topic it is easier to produce a relevant, meaningful and practical research study. Conversely, if a researcher were to ignore this approach and deal with the topic of Child Abuse only as a topic, there are many aspects and questions that would have to be considered. These could include all the different types of abuse at an international level over huge timeframes. To further examine and explain the process of conceptualisation this essay will give another example from an actual Irish research on Child Sexual Abuse.

The Murphy report (2009) was commissioned to examine the allegations and suspicions of child sexual abuse against clerics in the Archdiocese of Dublin over the period 1975 to 2004. The author takes this report as a further example of conceptualisation as it specifically details exactly what it was set up to find out. It examines allegations of child abuse against clerics; here it is not concerned with lay people or other children. The study was confined to the Archdiocese of Dublin, not Ireland as a whole. Finally, the report was focussed only on the period spanning 1975 through to 2005. This conceptualisation made it very clear what exactly the research was to encapsulate. The previous paragraphs discussed specification of meaning of terms whilst this example demonstrates evidence of clarification of concepts. The Operationalisation process is also concerned with specification but on a different more detailed scale.

Operationalisation is a process where certain variables are employed as aids in specifying what exactly is being observed and just as importantly, specifying and demonstrating, how exactly observation will be carried out. It is important to understand what is meant by the term variable. In defining the term Giddens explains it as:

'A dimension along which an object, individual or group may be categorised, such as income or height, allowing specific comparisons with others or over time' (Giddens, 2001,p.701).

Other concepts such as class or satisfaction can not be observed (Bell, 2005). Ways of measurement must therefore be determined. Rose and Sullivan (1996) are cited by Bell (2005:p.139) to show how the concept of class might be measurable. They write that:

'If we wish to understand something about class (a concept and therefore…not observable), what can we observe in the world which manifests class? That is, what indicators can be used for class so that we can obtain data about class? This is the essence of the measurement problem and when we link an unobservable concept with an observable indicator we are producing operationalisations.' (Rose and Sullivan 1996:12-13).

The authors do not expand on this quote but indicators of class for example may be based on salary, housing or education. These are elements of the concept of class and are measurable.

In the previous example of The Murphy Report the term Child Abuse was seen to be defined under four main headings. These could also be taken as the variables, a specification of what aspects of child abuse will be researched. Continuing with the operationalisation process, having identified variables the researcher will then need to devise indicators to measure the concept (Bryman,2004).

Thus far this paper has attempted to portray an understanding of conceptualisation and operationalisation. In doing so, it was also necessary to include references to variables and indicators. The next section of this paper necessitates further explanations of these terms.

The three main steps in these processes are defining concepts, identifying variables and developing measurement indicators (Geraghty, 2008). This paper will outline each of these and provide appropriate examples that are continuing on the subject of child abuse.

In examining what is meant by conceptualisation this paper explained the complexity of undertaking a broad research and detailed ways in which a subject or topic could be narrowed down and refined. Geraghty (2008) explains it as using a theory to identify concepts at the core of a research study. An example of poverty was given at the start of this paper demonstrating different elements of the topic that could merit a research study on their own, for example income poverty. Defining concepts also involves researching current and previous definitions on the subject. Previously in this paper a definition of child abuse was taken from The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act, 2000. A definition from an American study over twenty years earlier gives a legal definition as:

' The physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of a child under the age of 18 by a person who is responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances which indicate the child's health or welfare is harmed or threatened thereby.'( Bradbard and Watkins, 1982).

Although these definitions are similar to a degree there are some differences that may be important in specifying elements of a concept. The Irish definition for example does not specify an age level whereas the American definition specifies under the age of eighteen. The Irish example does not specify that the abuse is by a person who is responsible for the child's health or welfare. There are many other definitions of abuse that may also include exploitation or other elements as a variable. What is seen as abuse in one culture may be accepted as normal practice in another, such as child marriages. Researching such definitions helps to give a clearer aspect of a concept and may be useful in identifying other relevant elements for consideration. Having looked at defining a concept the next step is to identify variables.

Identifying variables is an important part of the conceptualisation and operationalisation process. It involves examining different dimensions of a topic that need to be considered to capture exactly what is being observed (Geraghty, 2008). As with defining concepts it is important to research previous studies to capture what variables other researchers used and how they applied them (Geraghty, 2008). Previously this paper referred to the Murphy Report (2009), which was primarily concerned with child sexual abuse and clerical involvement. In this case only the sexual element of abuse was researched. Taking sexual abuse as the subject necessitates determining variables of Child Sexual Abuse. These may include social status, incest and institutional settings.

Another report, the Ryan Report (2009) studied Child Abuse in Irish Industrial schools and children's institutions spanning several decades up to 1974. This report, in dealing with child abuse broke abuse into four variables; physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. There has been huge media attention on the subject of child sexual abuse in Ireland, so much so that there may be a tendency to automatically assume that the term child abuse is relating to sexual abuse. However, by conceptualising and breaking the term into variables, child abuse captures other aspects which are just as important in their own right. In an editorial from Child Links, Barnardo's on the subject of child abuse categories say:

'Of these, the largest number of cases that come to the attention of the authorities are cases of child neglect. In 2003, of the 4,984 children who were in State care, 24% of these children had been neglected. Yet it is the sexual abuse cases that are highlighted more in the media.' (Conroy, p.9).

This quote along with the example of the Ryan report demonstrates how the use of variables more readily captures elements of child abuse that might otherwise have been overlooked. Variables are important in identifying aspects of a concept to be studied. There is also a need to measure the information and data accumulated under each variable or show what was used to determine the data. At this juncture the third and final step of the conceptualisation and operationalisation process will be explained.

Indicators are measures that should link to the variable. There can be numerous indicators for each variable depending on the research subject. In taking the variable of neglect for example, it could be measured using a number of indicators that may themselves be broken down to further indicators. One indicator may be a physical indicator from which other indicators may be taken, such as loss of weight, poor or inadequate shelter or poor health. Another indicator such as behavioural could be broken down to further indicators such as leaving school early, alcohol abuse or crime.

The Disabled Persons Protection Commission in Massachusetts USA (2010) lists twenty-three separate indicators for physical abuse including burns, scalds, bites, cuts and more. Indicators can be used to determine the presence or absence of what is being researched (Geraghty, 2008). However, not all researches may require so many, Bryman (2004) argues that in much quantitative research there may be only one indicator of a concept used. Although indicators are extremely useful in research, care must be taken, especially in areas like child abuse, as even with indicators, signs are not always readily visible. In its national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children (2004) the Department of Health and Children expressed caution on this when issuing their own guidelines.

To conclude this section on indicators it is important to understand that the indicator used should stand up to accurate measurement. In social research, validating examines the accuracy of measurement and is considered the most important criterion in social research (Geraghty, 2008). Another important criterion in social research is reliability. Reliability estimates the consistency of procedures used for collecting data even at different times with different subjects (Geraghty, 2008). Validity and Reliability as discussed are key criteria in research and merit a separate paper to fully explain their importance in research studies. The author has introduced them at this point to show that not only are indicators useful in breaking research studies down into manageable portions they are critical components necessary for the validation of a study.

This essay commenced by referring to the complexity of undertaking a broad research study. An example of the term poverty was presented as a broad theory that encapsulates many dimensions, such as income poverty and children's health. The author explained how broad based theories can be broken down into mid - range theories through the use of an appropriate research question. The example proffered being, how the reduction of benefits could affect children's health. This demonstrated that in breaking down the theory of poverty it is easier to determine what exactly the researcher is trying to find out. The author identified this process as conceptualisation.

The operationalisation process was then outlined, specifying the importance of understanding how exactly, observation should be conducted. The three main steps of the process of conceptualisation and operationalisation , defining concepts, identifying variables and development indicators were outlined. In doing this, examples of the Murphy and Ryan reports were used to demonstrate all three of these steps. The essay concluded with measurement indicators and stressed their importance not only as tools in observation through measurement but also as vital components of validity and reliability criteria.

Although it is possible to undertake a research study without the employment of detailed methodologies, a research can be more focussed with an investigative plan. Whilst this paper did not look at the many and varied tools of research methodology, it did however concentrate on useful and important processes that help ensure that correct and relevant information is gathered. The purpose of any research is to gather information on a subject or social issue. Employing methods that ensure the correct, measurable data is gathered in relation to the subject is well served using the processes of conceptualisation and operationalistion.


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