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Understanding Concepts, Variables, and Attributes

Notes from Caroline Persell’s Introduction to Sociology Course 2/18/03 by Caroline Persell and
Alice Cao (an Introduction to Sociology student who drew a better diagram than her professor did)


    These terms are used in doing research in the social and behavioral sciences, as well as applied fields such as business, nursing, social work, education, international development, or others. 

  1. How concepts, variables, and attributes are related to each other (schematically):




  1. Definitions

        1.  Concepts

  1. Highest level of generality
  2. “A formal definition of what is being studied.”
  3. “The mental images we use to bring order to the mass of” things in the social world (Babbie, p. 45).
  4. An idea about a phenomenon.


  1. Adjustment to college (academic, social, and psychological adjustment)
  2. Life in outer space (a concept that cannot be fully tested)
  3. Collective efficacy: social cohesion/trust & informal social control in a neighborhood, e.g., would someone respond to someone else in need of aid?

           2.  Variables

  1. Logical groupings of attributes. 
  2. The operational measures of the more abstract concepts we’re studying.

Example: To measure adjustment, you can think of questions such as the following:

Academic: Are you doing in your work? Are you attending your classes?
Social: Have you made any friends? What degree of social life do you have?

  1. Has to show different values, i.e., must have at least 2 attributes
  2. Example: For humans, species is not a variable. It is only a variable when you are taking into account other forms of life besides human beings.
  3. Can be numerical or qualitative.

           3.  Attributes The categories of a variable

Example: The attributes of the variable, religion, include Catholic, Jew, Protestant, Muslim, etc.