Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Concept Formation and Operationalization

Concept formation and operationalization go hand-in-hand and are the starting points of good qualitative research for monitoring and evaluation.

Concept formation in qualitative research is a systematic process whereby the researcher sets definitions for important concepts that emerge during the research. These definitions help to provide the parameters for the qualitative study. Operationalization is the process by which researchers set indicators to measure concepts. Evaluators set indicators to help measure changes in concepts.

As qualitative researchers, we need to define the key concepts that we use in our research, creating definitions that help identify the concept in relation to other concepts. We need to be able to recognize easily what falls within a particular definition or category. Finding the right definition for a concept is a balancing act, though.

The definitions that we set need to be specific enough so that they are not ambiguous. We need to be able to see clearly when a case fits a particular definition, and when it does not. However, we need to be careful that our definitions are not too specific, so that they include very few cases. Likewise, our definitions should not be so encompassing that they include many, many cases and end up stretching the definition of our concept so far that the concept or the category itself becomes meaningless.

Operationalization is the process by which we take a defined concept and set indicators to measure that concept. Operationalization is particularly important to evaluators who use qualitative and quantitative indicators to measure progress or change over time — usually conducting research with program participants and using archival documents such as program quarterly reports. An evaluator might consider qualitative indicators that capture people’s experiences, asking questions such as when, where, what, which, who, how, and why; and quantitative indicators that focus on numerical results, honing in on aspects that can be counted. Either way, the evaluator would have an evaluation design and Logical Framework that helps guide the evaluation research.

Concept Formation and Operationalization: The Case of Informal Banking in South Africa
Let’s take the example of informal banking, common in developing countries where people use informal savings mechanisms instead of, or in addition to, formal accounts. I once did an ethnography of the informal banking sector in South Africa. The initial concepts that I identified included savings clubs (informal organizations where people got together to save money), and savings (money). Once I carried out participant observation and unstructured interviews, it was clear that my definition of savings clubs was too broad and my definition of savings was too narrow. I had not taken emic considerations into account when developing these initial definitions! As a result, I had stretched the concept of savings clubs to the point that it was meaningless and specified the concept of savings so narrowly that it was exclusionary. I needed to change my definition of savings clubs to delineate between the different kinds and their purposes (burial societies, rotating savings clubs, accumulating savings clubs, goods clubs, and microcredit organizations). My definition of savings needed to include long life grains, bricks, and cattle, in addition to money.

The research that I did in South Africa was not evaluation research, so I was not trying to set indicators to measure the change or impact that savings club membership brought to their members. If I had been conducting an evaluation of the savings clubs, I could have approached the evaluation in several different ways. If I were interested in women’s empowerment, then I could have asked if the associations empowered women or if women members were more likely to be empowered than women who were not members. Either way, I would have had to define the term empowerment, set indicators to measure it, and develop an evaluation design to frame the research. If part of empowerment was related to control over financial resources, then my design would need to find a way to measure that aspect as well. Such a design would likely have a quantitative or mixed method approach. Either way, the starting point of my research would be defining concepts and setting indicators to measure them.

About the Author 

Doctor Beverly PetersDr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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