Thursday, September 06, 2007

No amount of measurement or operationism bails out bad concepts

“The precise and exact naming of variables is important in research. It is both essential to and a result of good operationalization. Variables names quite often evolve from an iterative process of forming a conceptual definition, then an operational definition, then renaming the concept to better match what can or will be measured.” Patricia Fisher

This was a problem with the concept of “water” that I encountered in my research with a transdisciplinary group of researchers, primarily at MSU. Everyone has a concept of what “water” is, however, working across natural science and social science disciplines brought up the professional/discipline-based differences of understanding that the concept of water holds; the concept of water to a surface water hydrologist is different than that of a groundwater hydrologist, both of whom may be attached to a college of civil engineering. Similarly, each different discipline had different means of water measurement (ft3/sec for surface water hydrologists, gallons/min for groundwater hydrologists, acre-feet for agriculture engineers, etc.), and different assumptions about what was “good” or “ideal” for the behavior of water in a system that was being analyzed. Surface water engineers are trained to route water through a system as quickly as possible, with as few leaks and meanders in the system as possible. Groundwater hydrologists are trained to account for the relatively much slower movement of water in a timeframe of months. Aquatic ecologists are trained to prefer water that moves “naturally” through a system, providing ample habitat for aquatic plants and animals; a critical concept to be measured being that of “base flow”.

This brings me to asking whether a discussion of the seemingly simple and unifying concept of water can actually be done across disciplines, as well as asking the more intellectually interesting (at least to me) question, “Are concepts of water discipline-based?”

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