Unpack Research Language for Yourself and Your Clients
The wheels of market research turn on the ability to understand phenomena well enough to forecast trends and predict shopper behavior. The language of research has been derived from many different disciplines. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and philosophy figure the most prominently. To be able to communicate effectively and accurately about research objectives and research design, it is essential that market researchers have an solid understanding of basic terminology. Several key terms and their definitions are presented below.
Concepts - Concepts are basic elements in the language of research. Think of them as the first row of LegosTM or the first layer of bricks in a construction. A concept is a collection of attributes or meanings that are associated with something else. Concepts can be associated with objects, subjects, conditions, events, situations, and behaviors. When these associations are categorized or organized according to their shared attributes or meanings -- and this must occur beyond a single or isolated observation -- then concepts are generated. For example, the printed word is a large category, from which a number of concepts can be constructed: Books, magazines, pamphlets, websites, and advertisements.
To these concepts, we also attach labels that let us that let us make sense of ideas, which may be specific and definable or obscure and abstract. Labels that we frequently encounter and are familiar with help to clarify concepts. For instance, a painting may be understood as a concept, but if we add the label impressionist, most people will immediately understand what type of art is being discussed. A common subject of French impressionist painters is fields filled with blooming lavender. Adding a second label of lavender fields adds an additional specificity that promotes common and precise understanding.
Concepts are used in research in myriad ways. Concepts become the basis for data collection, data measurement, and data analysis in research. Hypotheses are developed by considering concepts. Effective market research requires that the researchers understand the concepts they work with, and also that the research participants understand any concepts with which they are expected to engage or interpret. For example, when a market research project is focused on the customer experience, the concepts in play are notably abstract. Labeling the concepts for greater clarity and to ensure that participants all understand the concepts in the same way is core to measures of research validity and reliability.
Constructs - When concepts are abstract,they may be referred to as constructs. A construct exists only because someone - usually a scientist or researcher - invents an abstract idea in order to build theory or, perhaps, confirm previously conducted research. Concepts are used to build or deconstruct constructs. Using a mind map is an example of deconstructing a construct. If we start with the construct of consumer experience, we have an abstract construct. Until some labels are added, or some concepts are associated with consumer experience, we can't be sure that everyone in the research project holds the same idea about what consumer experience is or entails.
In market research, the components that make up a construct are often unknown. Because it is so abstract, unfamiliar, or fundamentally unknown, a hypothetical construct can often only be inferred from collected data. The market researcher can presume that components that make up a hypothetical construct exist, but any conclusions await empirical testing of the hypothesis. If the concepts and constructs in a research project are found to be interrelated and supported by the data collected and analyzed, a conceptual scheme is formed.
Operational Definitions - Definitions found in common dictionaries tend to be circular because they are based on synonyms. This type of definition is inadequate for research purposes because concepts and constructs will be measured based on the understood definitions. A more exact type of definition is necessary for research purposes. An operational definition is expressed in terms of the specific measurement or testing criteria that articulate the associated concepts and constructs, and by which they will be observed.
The measurement or testing criteria terms must reference scientific standards for gathering information by way of our senses. We must be able to see, hear, count, measure, or demonstrate the criteria terms in some repeatable way. Market researchers are charged with generating questions about the attitudes and perceptions, say, of consumers. These questions and their answers form the basis for the operational definition. If an established and validated instrument or scale is used to measure the phenomena under study, then that instrument or scale operationally defines the construct being measured.
Operational definitions provide a basis for understanding concepts and for devising ways to test and measure those concepts. Typically, the operational definitions in a market research study will form the basis for the research questions, research hypotheses, and the theories associated with the research.
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