I was first introduced to this term when I took a course in psychological research methods a few months ago. Essentially, it means defining a concept in such a way that it can be manipulated in objective space as opposed to subjective space. More simply, a a concept is defined in terms of measurable qualities rather than qualities for which no objective measure exists. Dealing with the objective and things defined operationally is key to scientific method in general and certainly not limited to psychology. Indeed, limiting rationality to the objective space has provided a framework under which great strides in discovery have been and are made feasible.
However, we must take care not to overextend the application of objective reasoning. Today, objectivity is applied almost without question to politics, social sciences and even the meaning of existance. It has been my personal experience that this far reaching application tends to be self-limiting at best and destructive at worst. On the limiting side of the spectrum, we can invoke the Marcusian notion of the operationalization of concepts lke “freedom,” where the objectification of freedom inherently limits what freedom ‘could’ be or mean. On the destructive end of the spectrum, we may postulate that the total absence of subjectivity leads to nihilism in that the limiting factors of objective definition become so pervasive that no room exists for personal discovery or growth.
In the strictest sense, an abstract operational definition would need to be a combination of other operational definitions eventually reducing to a set that are directly measurable. Therefore, a positivist may assert, “even very abstract concepts such as freedom and existence will eventually be explainable through operational definition via reduction of these concepts down to physical or computational laws.” However, the complexity of this model may not be graspable. That is, understanding the model may prove as difficult as understanding the physical manifestation the model was intended to represent. In other words, one would need to apply the same empirical methods to understand the model as they would to understand reality.
Furthermore, in the discourse of social and political sciences definitions are routinely established and used operationally that are not “pure” operational definitions. That is, they don’t reduce to directly measurable elements. This is an almost humorous constraint in these domains because they’re limited by a sense of objectivity which fails to truly be objective.
For better of for worse, objective thinking is so incredibly embedded in our thought processes at this point that it is overextended in attempts to tackle problems for which it is ill prepared. This over dependence opens the door to manipulation and limitations upon thought.