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Case Study: an Operational Definition

Updated on January 12, 2012

Research can be defined in a number of ways. It is a process of collecting information to solve problems or increase in knowledge. Another definition could be “organized investigation to explore new areas or to solve exiting problems”. The exploration role is termed as “Basic Research” or “Pure Research” while problem solving research is categorized as “Applied Research”. Simply put, it means search again and again.

Research has a wide use. Also, it is used extensively in business. While it is helpful in decision-making, it does not provide a final answer. There are many other sources of knowledge to facilitate the decision making process as the above sketch.

Limitation of Research

Research has some limitation when it is used in subjective areas which involve feelings, emotions, attitudes, perceptions, tastes, likes and dislike. Let us start an experiment in a laboratory. We mix 10 gram of sugar in half a liter of water. If we test the degree of sweetness through a scientific instrument, it would always show a sucrose level of 1%. Reducing water or increase in sugar would invariably increase the sucrose level. Now suppose, we conduct the same test in different areas of a city. In each area, we randomly invite some people to take a sip of sweetened water and give their comments. Some may describe it as “very sweet”, while people in another area may label it “not sweet at all”. This is due to difference in group composition in regard to age, taste, income level, mood or bias. As such it would be difficult to prove that sugar and sweetness have a cause-and-effect relationship.


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Human involvement in Business Research

Such an experiment would further be complicated as first of all a research would have to define what is “very sweet” or simply what sweetness is. This calls for an operational definition which is subject matter of this essay.

An operational definition is a procedure agreed upon for translating a concept into a measurement of some kind. It often takes the form of numerical measurements because everyone agrees on what numbers means. A tall person can be anyone over 6’ and 5”. In this way, a concept or a mental image or a perception of “tallness” has been reduced to a number. Now it would be easy for everyone participating in locating tall persons what to observe and measure so that there is a consistency.

I recall entering a restaurant in Mexico City where many curries were available in different shades of red. I pointed out to one and asked a waiter whether it was hot or not. He called the boss who explained to me that there were three such categories: hot, fierce and tongue-blister. “What is a tongue-blister”, I asked and he replied, “It would bring tears to your eyes and sweat to your forehead”. An operational definition was never so clear to me.

An experiment

In one particular university, students turned violent when a student had an argument with the waiter over the quality of tea. There was some hot exchange of words but this small incident erupted a fury which resulted in stone pelting on the canteen and administrative block. Everyone was shocked with the scale of destruction. In the faculty meeting, a professor of research analyzed the situation and concluded that students were already frustrated over long study hours, postponement of social week and newly introduced attendance rules. The tension was mounting up which was released on the occurrence of the canteen incident.

The professor had formed a hypothesis or an assumption that ‘frustration leads to aggression’. He found it a good opportunity to conduct an experiment to prove his guess as correct. He thought such a study would equally benefit his students and strengthen their understanding of Research Methodology.

He asked all students of his class to go out and form a line. Next he asked them to move in the room, one by one. He had two assistants with him who help him forming two groups of students through asking first student to go left and second to go right and repeating the same process as students entered in the class. In this way the class of fifty got divided into two groups. This is called random selection and it removes bias of the researcher. Afterwards, he asked to students in the right side to stay in the same room while those on the left were asked to go to another room. He asked his assistants to note names of the students on two separate sheets to keep a record of who was in which group. The professor decided to treat the staying students as an Experimental Group. If so, the other group would be termed as “Control Group”. Here control strictly means ‘keep as it is’. Such a group is not made a part of the experiment, it receives no treatment. Such a group serves only as a bench mark to find out if the experiment or treatment has created a significant different between the two groups.

Now the experiment starts. The Professor asked one of his assistant to go to Control Group and start giving a lecture on such light topics such as difference between Basic and Applied Research or difference between Management Problem and Research Problem. He himself gave a quiz to students in the experimental group in which he failed almost all of them. A second quiz was given and rated badly. The same was done for the third quiz. After these quizzes, he asked students of both the groups to mix up and form a line again to be entered one by one in the class. Meanwhile, he had plugged in an electric wire in the main supply line keeping the other end naked. In fact, there was no electricity in the wire but this was not known to the students. He called in the first student and asked him to pick up the wire and touch the naked end to the back of the palm of his assistant. He asked the other assistant to note the student name on a sheet along with his reaction. It was observed that some students flatly refused to take any such action, some touched the wire quite reluctantly and some not only responded quickly but also pierced the naked end in the back of the palm. Later, names of the students were compared with names in two separate groups and it was observed that all students piercing the wire belonged to the experimental group which stayed in the class and took the quizzes.

From this, the professor concluded that since the experimental group members were most frustrated having failed in all the three quizzes; they became aggressive which was exhibited in their behavior. So his assumptions that frustration leads to aggression proved correct. Formally speaking he formed the following Null and Alternate Hypothesis.

Chihuahua does not bark, its mouth is so small that it cannot bark even if wants to.
Chihuahua does not bark, its mouth is so small that it cannot bark even if wants to. | Source

He had only to reject the Null Hypothesis.  If rejected, the alternate hypothesis was accepted automatically. This approach is adopted in all hypothesis testing since it is difficult to prove something correct than in-correct.  If we say all dogs bark, someone may point out to that a Mexican dog “Chihuahua’ or “Poodle” seldom bark and therefore it is incorrect to say that all dogs bark.  On other hand, if we say that no dog barks, it would be much easier to reject it.  In doing so, we accept the alternate which proves our assumption.



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    • profile image

      sharmyjiron 5 years ago

      big help for my daughters research. thanks a lot

    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 6 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Magda Mutinda for your comments.

    • profile image

      magda mutinda 6 years ago

      kudos Sir! I like your approach of doing research. you have gone a long way to assist me to understand null and alternative hypothesis. Thanks to God for creating people like you.

    • profile image

      hezron 7 years ago

      This a masterpiece. Clear, precise and relevant.

      Thanks Sir

    • profile image

      Syed Najaf Ali 7 years ago

      Dear sir Hafeez..Great work sir.. By reading this article my concepts of MBR are now crystal clear.. i must say that your articles are cery informative and everything is explained in a clear manner..

    • profile image

      Sehrish Zafar 7 years ago

      A very informative and interesting article...Everything has been explained in very precise and clear manner.Its really going to help me in near future.Kindly uplaod such article in future as well.

    • profile image

      Hina Waseem 7 years ago


    • profile image

      minhas 7 years ago

      Dear Sir.....great work.... this really eliminated biasing situation during the research work.... it has cleared many concepts and provide vision for MBR

    • profile image

      ubedullah khan mahsood 8 years ago

      dear hafeez malik i read ur article, it is a very good aproach toward research i hop it help the business researcher and also learner thanks for ur approach.

    • profile image

      kamran qamar 8 years ago

      sir, wow , it was a great example of students.... this really eliminated biasing situation during the research work.... it has cleared many concepts...thnx

    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 8 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks for your comments.

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      a pakistani youngster 8 years ago

      Hello Mr. Hafeezrm,

      i enjoyed reading your article and I found the experiment very interesting. I would like to point out that when using statistical analysis to support your data (i.e. accepting or rejecting the null) one never really "proves" anything. The data just supports the alternate hypothesis

      "So his assumptions that frustration leads to aggression proved correct."


      " In doing so, we accept the alternate which proves our assumption."

      In both cases, it may be more accurate to state that the experimental results "support" the assumption.I personally believe that nothing is proven in science. As time goes on, our ideas just get edited and altered due an inherent ambiguity in the hypothesis. I do not believe that any idea is above scrutiny because I feel that it leads to an unconscious bias in our interpretation of results.

      With that being said, I enjoyed the read.

    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 8 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Rufi for visiting my page.

    • Rufi Shahzada profile image

      Rufi Shahzada 8 years ago from Karachi

      Dear Sir,

      Very Informative article indeed, the UNIVERSITY EXAMPLE you have used is a TRUTH and a perfect instance to elaborate such research...

      Thanks a lot!

      Rufi Shahzada

    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 9 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Michael for your comments. 

    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 9 years ago from Pakistan

      Business Research is a wide subject which includes Market Research. MBR is concerned with methodolgy of conducting a business research. Same methods are used in Market Research. Hope it would clarify the situation.

    • mashood_khan profile image

      mashood_khan 9 years ago

      Dear Mr. Hafeez:

      After Studying MBR Basic and advance. I am right now confused to differentiate between MBR and Marketing Research. Could you please define the laymen difference between them?

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      michael schmidt 9 years ago

      A good article & a good explanation of the scientific method. Makes concrete the ideas of accepting or rejecting the null hypothesis.