Many of the concepts you might be interested in studying will have imprecise or vague meanings (e.g. ‘ productivity’, ‘happiness’ , ‘prejudice’). ‘Conceptualization’ refers to the process of specifying the meaning of concepts in a precise way. This involves specifying the ‘essential qualities’ associated with a concept, so that it becomes possible to tell whether or not something is an example of the concept. For example, the essential qualities of the concept ‘prejudice’ include ‘preconceived beliefs about specific groups of people’. Note that this conceptual definition does not refer to how the concept can be measured; it is abstract.
Many concepts contain a number of different aspects or dimensions. For example, ‘prejudice’ can relate to preconceived beliefs about different ethnic groups, different social groups, religious groups etc. It is important to specify the various aspects or dimensions of the concept. This forms the basis on which you operationalize and measure your variables.
Babbie, Earl (2004). The Practice of Social Research (12th edition). Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson. Chapter 5
De Vaus, David (2001). Research Design in Social Research. London: Sage. Chapter 2.
Shadish, William R., Thomas D. Cook and Donald T. Cambell (2002). Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Generalized Causal Inference. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Chapter 3.
Gerring, John (2001) Social Science Methodology: a criterial framework. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Ch. 3 and 4.
Collier, Laporte and Seawright (2008) Typologies: Forming Concepts and Creating Categorical Variables, in: Box-Steffensmeier, Brady and Collier, Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology, Oxford University Press.
Gerring, John and Paul A. Baressi (2003) ‘Putting Ordinary Language to work. A min-max Strategy of Concept Formation in the Social Sciences’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 201-232