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the philosophical doctrine that defines scientific concepts entirely in terms of the working (i.e. ‘operational’) procedures with which they are associated. In the form proposed by the physicist P. W. Bridgman (1927), the doctrine, though intended to be ‘empiricist’ (e.g. to exclude all reference in science to ‘unobservables’), in fact issues in a radical form of CONVENTIONALISM. In social science, an example of operationalism is the statement that ‘intelligence is what intelligence tests measure’. Seen thus, the limitations of operationalism are obvious: science in all its forms would be condemned to possessing no rational way of judging between concepts in terms of‘realism’, e.g. between different ‘measures’ of intelligence. Operationalism should be distinguished from OPERATIONALIZATION, which need not depend on operationalism.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a philosophical trend that seeks to reorganize the language of science on an operational basis. Opera-tionalism arose as a result of the very important discoveries in physics made in the early 20th century. These discoveries raised questions about the nature of physical concepts and their relation to experiment, as well as the important problem of forming definitions of these concepts that would not require revision with the appearance of new experimental facts.

The concept of operationalism was first outlined by the British physicist N. R. Campbell in his Physics: The Elements (Cambridge, 1920). In his works of the 1920’s, P. W. Bridgman propounded operationalism as an explicit program that was created to serve as the philosophical and methodological basis of the natural and social sciences. Beginning with a philosophical critique of the traditional view of dimension formulas as expressions of “substantial properties” of physical quantities, and relying on the dependence of dimensions on measurement operations, Bridgman carried over the idea of the operational definition of concepts into the methodology of science and the theory of knowledge, where it became a general principle: the “infallible” definition of concepts is achievable not in terms of properties but in terms of empirical operations. For example, the concept of length abstractly defined as a general property of equal segments is nonoperational and “bad,” since it makes real a property that cannot be empirically verified. In contrast, the metrological concept of length is operational and “good,” since experience provides us with only a numerical estimate of a segment, which may be calculated by solving an equation or determined by measurement.

According to operationalism, the reference and sentence meanings of concepts must be established solely by the verification of phrases containing the corresponding concepts or by means of the specification of answers to questions. In all these cases the concept is correlated with certain empirical operations, in particular, measurements, or with mental (verbal) operations, in particular, calculations (pencil-and-paper operations). The actual performance of these operations, or a careful examination of them in thought, permits the meaning of a concept to be elucidated “step by step” and thus guarantees its nonemptiness.

The fundamental idea of operationalism, that of relating the meaning of a concept to a series of operations in whose framework the meaning takes shape, is characteristic of everyday practice and is in itself not new. A familiar analogue of operational definitions in scientific practice may be provided by constructive, or algorithmic, definitions in mathematics (rules for arithmetic calculations, geometrical constructions). Having demonstrated the importance of this relation for theoretical natural science, operationalism has presented theoretical natural science with the task of constructive reorganization (similar to that which took place in mathematics in connection with the refinement of the concept of algorithm). Reduction to the operational level is considered by operationalists to be the only correct approach to the evaluation and construction of scientific theories.

The interpretation of the operational approach, proposed by Bridgman, which essentially leads to a denial of the objective content of concepts, even those defined operationally, has shown itself to be in contradiction with operationalism’s true task of refining scientific concepts, insofar as the question of their accuracy loses its meaning when the objective bounds of accuracy are ignored. The question of the empirical basis of knowledge, which is paramount for operationalism, is also devoid of meaning when the independent, “leading” (as far as the experiment is concerned) role of abstraction and abstract thinking is underrated. This is the case with operationalists, especially when they ignore the question of the “nonextraneous” nature of a particular set of empirical data (observations, experiments) with respect to the abstract concepts and models that form the connecting links in the network of operational descriptions. Many scientific theories, for example, classical mechanics and the general theory of relativity, were formulated not as a result of the operational specification of known concepts and the empirical data corresponding to them (for example, by means of more precise measurements) but as a result of the “removal” of those, generally speaking, completely sensible descriptions of experience that contradict the fundamentally new concepts and models of these theories. For example, one of the arguments in favor of Ptolemy’s geocentric system was everyday experience and the corresponding notion of the motion of the celestial bodies, but as Copernicus noted, this was an extraneous experience in terms of the heliocentric model of the universe. Our “everyday” experience of flat (Euclidean) space is just as extraneous to Einstein’s theory of gravitation.

Operational empiricism has had an important influence on the methodology of theoretical natural science, particularly on the methodology of physics (A. Eddington in Great Britain and P. Frank and H. Margenau in the USA) and psychology (the behaviorists G. K. Pratt, B. F. Skinner, and S. Stevens in the USA). Absolute adherence to operational analysis has made “operational dogmatists” of many operationalists.


Przełęki, M. “O tak nazyvaemykh operatsionnykh opredelenniakh.” In Studia Logica, vol. 3. Warsaw, 1955.
Hill, T. E. Sovremennye teorii poznaniia. Moscow, 1965. (Translated from English.)
Gorskii, D. P. “Operatsional’nye opredeleniia i operatsionalizm P. Bridzhmena.” Voprosy filosofii, 1971, no. 6.
Kaempffer, F. A. Put’v sovremennuiu fiziku. Moscow, 1972. (Translated from English.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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