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Difference Between Concepts and Variables in Research

Concepts and variables are mental images; concepts are highly subjective and cannot be measured unless they are operationalized while variables can be measured on one of the statistical scales. to understand concepts and variables let’s read about them in detail.

What are concepts?

Concepts are highly subjective in nature and that makes it difficult to use them as they are in a research study. These subjective thoughts cannot be measured on a statistical scale. Kumar (2000) says that concepts are mental images and therefore their meanings vary markedly from individual to individual. Concepts are subjective impressions and their understanding will differ from person to person, which, if measured, would cause problems in comparing responses. Concepts should be converted into variables so that they can be measured, although on different scales same variable will have different precision.

If the researcher is using some concepts in his research he needs to find out some indicators that are reflective of these concepts. these indicators can be chosen subjectively by the researcher but they should have a logical link with the concept. The indicators can then be converted into variables.


  1. Take an example of the effectiveness of a medicine in curing a disease, the researcher can use the indicators: changes in the mortality rate, changes in morbidity, changes in recurrence of that disease, or prevention from that disease. These indicators can then be converted into variable to be able to be measured.
  2. We can take another example of another concept that is how rich someone can be? To measure this concept you need an indicator and you can measure someone’s richness from his wealth that he possesses. This wealth can be in the form of his income, money in his bank accounts, owned houses or other property and so on.
  3. A psychologist might want to test the effectiveness of his counselling to patients with anxiety. Effectiveness is a concept and you cannot measure it on any statistical scale. He can operationalize his concept of effectiveness of his counselling treatment into the following indicators: percentage reduction in patients’ anxiety, reduction in his day offs from the workplace, reduction in his visits to the psychologist office etc.

Without converting your concept into an indicator and then a variable you cannot measure it on any scale. The subjectivity of these indicators make them not suitable to be used directly in a research project. It should also be noted that the extent of variation can only be reduced by operationalizing these concepts, it cannot be eliminated completely.

What are variables?

Variables are measurable of course, with varying degree of accuracy. Measurability is the main difference between concepts and variables. A variable can be measured either using crude or refined method or either using subjective or objective methods. There are various scales and a variable can be measured on either one of those scales. The statistical variables can be measured on either nominal, ordinal, ratio or interval scale. This ability of the variables brings objectivity in the research findings.

A s variables are capable of measurement they can take different values and every variable can have different values. Generally speaking variables can be either independent variable or dependent variable. There can also be extraneous and intervening variables

Independent variable

From the viewpoint of causation an independent variable is a variable that affects the dependent variable and in itself it is free of any effects from the dependent variable. It is the cause for the change in any phenomenon, situation, disease etc. For example in testing the cause of juvenile delinquency in a community, availability of guns can be taken as the cause and hence the independent variable.

Dependent variable

The dependent variable is the other main variable that is the effect of the independent variable. For example in a research on the impact of the availability of guns on the youth crime rate in a certain community, the youth crime rate is the dependent variable. In the above example the crime rate among youth is dependent on the availability of the guns.

Extraneous variable

In reality the situation is not always perfect with independent and dependent variable. Extraneous variables are all those variables that can impact the dependent variable other than the independent variable. In a laboratory setting it is comparatively easier to do the experiments in a perfect environment where the researcher controls all the extraneous variables. On the other hand, in a naturals setting it is difficult to control the extraneous variables.

Intervening variable

In certain situation an intervening variable needs to be there to have the independent variable affect the dependent variable. this variable is not always present but in the certain situation its intervention plays an important role between the cause and effect relationship.


  • Kumar, R., Research Methodology: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners, Sage Pub, London, 2000
  • Kothari, C.R., Research Methodology: Methods and Techniques, New Delhi,Wiley Eastern Limited, 1985




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