Operational definitions

Kevin Drum is steamed about the larceny practiced by elements of the criminal justice system, from petty (charging arrestees for the “service” of booking, and then not giving all of it back),  to grand (the civil forfeiture scam by which the police can take your car-or your house-and keep it if someone in the station house is willing to say he thinks you, or someone, used them nefariously).

Kevin is entirely correct, but this ongoing outrage is overshadowed by the official massacre playing out in the Philippines, whose president was elected on a platform promising that people can be shot (and he boasts of having blown away a few citizens personally) if someone thinks they sell, or use, drugs.  Someone? Apparently this means the shooter, or some guy who told him something about somebody.

(We also have a case of nature imitating art here: the plot of Terry Gilliam’s immortal Brazil is set in motion when a fascistic, bureaucratic dictatorship arrests the wrong guy (who dies in custody) and feels obliged to return the arrest fees it collected to his family.  Brazil, I may note, is a bitter, dystopian, satire.)

The concept central to understanding this stuff is central to all hard science and underappreciated in social science, namely the importance of operational definition.  An operational definition is a assignment to categories, or a reported measurement, that includes the protocol-the operations-by which it was applied.  Example: the ‘height of a building’, for most purposes, doesn’t need to specify the measurement process. But for others, it’s important to specify whether it was observed by lowering a measuring tape from the top, by surveying instruments and trigonometry back to an identified monument of accepted altitude, or by carrying an altimeter to the top and reading it; each of these will give a different number. Responsible experimental scientists report the brand and model number of measuring equipment used in lab procedures, as well as (when it might matter) ambient conditions and what the mouse had for dinner.

Never mind that capital punishment for drug use, or losing your house for dealing, let alone a relative’s dealing, are savageries in and of themselves. The implicit operational definition of a drug dealer,  or  one whose house may be confiscated in the cases above is quite far from the one we normally use to shoot or merely mulct people, and the press has a lot to answer for when it says Duterte and his vigilante thugs have “killed drug dealers”. The operational definition of “a drug dealer” used to allot punishment in civilized countries includes a finding of “guilty” after a whole series of steps from arrest with Miranda rights provided, through chain-of-evidence records, and a trial with its own specified protocols.

Duterte isn’t ‘shooting drug dealers’; he’s shooting people asserted to be drug dealers by, apparently, almost anyone: the guy’s romantic rival or business competitor, or an undertrained, underpaid cop’s on-the-spot guess.  And our own cops aren’t confiscating “assets used in crime”, they are confiscating assets they covet when they are willing to make up a story. “Hey, you remember the guy we busted for meth two weeks ago [whose trial won’t start for six months]? His cousin has a nice new SUV, and car 233 was totaled in that wreck on the freeway.  I bet the cousin gave him a ride in it sometime; let’s go pick it up!”





Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “Operational definitions”

  1. It is too bad that opposition to Jeff Sessions has been based entirely on racial issues. George Will, no less, has written criticizing Sessions' enthusiasm for civil forfeiture.

    Maybe putting some attention on that issue as well will help to prevent Sessions from heading the Department of Justice.

    1. I'll be surprised if Sessions can be derailed as AG. A more reasonable hope, it seems to me, is to 'Hickel' him - the confirmation for Walter Hickel for Interior was so bruising that he acted in a far more environmentally responsive way than there had been any reason to expect before Nixon nominated him.

      1. You could be right.

        Still, civil forfeiture is an issue at least among more libertarian-leaning conservatives. Whether there is much concern about it in the Senate I have no idea.

        I do think it should be brought up and talked about during the hearings. Even if id doesn't derail Sessions, it might call public attention to the issue.

  2. Hear hear. In my practice of treating behavioral issues, the operational definition is incredibly important as it defines precisely the dependent variable, and thus the efficacy of the treatment. One of my great frustrations with the social sciences and political discussions is when operational definitions are assumed instead of properly laid out. Frequently then, we are talking past one another.

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