Operationalizing is the process of defining a concept to make it measurable and empirical. For example if a researcher wants to measure sadness it cannot directly be measured by another observer as it is a subjective concept, it needs to be operationalized for example the researcher may ask the individual being observed ‘are you sad’, they can then note whether the person is happy or not based on their operational definition of happiness.

 This obviously has problems; some people may have missed an episode of a TV show the night before or something only slightly sad and report themselves as ‘very sad’ whereas other people may have found out their home had been eaten by a tiger who was demanding they pay him 1million pounds by that evening or something equally as traumatic and sad but only report themselves as ‘slightly sad’. It’s very subjective to the individual not to mention the fact people lie and over or under exaggerate. 

Another way to measure sadness could be to count how many separate times someone cries over a day, the researcher has operationalized sadness and if people are being observed all day it can easily be noted by another observer and made a note of, it is not subjective to the observers opinion. However is this really an appropriate definition? One subject may cry constantly for the entire day; as they only technically cried for one session they would not be seen as as sad as someone who cried twice because they suffer from hayfever which made their eyes water. It could be argued that due to this and the example above sadness is simply a non-operational variable, Green (2001) presents further criticism for operationalizing things such as concepts arguing that “the original goal was to eliminate the subjective mentalistic concepts that had dominated earlier psychological theory and to replace them with a more operationally meaningful account of human behaviour. But, as in economics, the supporters ultimately ended up “turning operationalism inside out”.

A social psychology example of operationalizing being used is in Bandura’s famous, 1961, ‘bobo dolls’ study in which he operationalized ‘aggressive behaviour’ to allow it to be observed.


In conclusion, can sadness really be operationalized? I would argue no, you can measure symptoms of sadness such as crying and asking the person their feelings, as discussed earlier, but you cannot measure sadness as a whole- it is too subjective, there are too many variables and people are too different.