Concepts and measurement: Ontology and epistemology

Gary Goertz*, James Mahoney

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


This article discusses some ontological and epistemological differences in qualitative and quantitative approaches to concepts and measurement. Concept formation inevitably raises the issue of ontology because it involves specifying what is inherent and important in the empirical phenomenon represented by a concept, e.g. 'What is democracy?' Qualitative researchers adopt a semantic approach and work hard to identify the intrinsic necessary defining attributes of a concept. Quantitative scholars adopt an indicator-latent variable approach and seek to identify good indicators that are caused by the latent variable. Concepts and measurement also raise epistemological issues about the nature and quality of knowledge. In quantitative analyses, the challenges of knowledge generation are closely linked to 'error', understood as the difference between an estimated value and a true value. By contrast, in qualitative analyses the challenges of knowledge generation are more closely linked to 'fuzziness', understood as partial membership in a conceptual set.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-216
Number of pages12
JournalSocial Science Information
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2012


  • concepts
  • fuzzy sets
  • latent variables
  • measurement
  • methodology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • Library and Information Sciences


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