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Operationalizing Homicide

Are all homicides the same? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why it is important to understand how variables are operationalized in order to understand how not all homicides are the same when it comes to reporting them. 

Homicide Scene

One step in the research process is operationalizing your variables. Operationalization means defining what your variables actual mean and what they are actually measuring.

While operationalization is critical to a research project, a consumer of research also needs to understand its importance. How variables are defined limits how research results can be interpreted.

Let’s look a bit closer at homicide rates. Some cities are reporting an increase in homicide rates, while other cities are reporting a decline in the 2013 homicide rate for their city.

Alex Tabarrock reports that there is a 25% difference between the lowest and highest reported homicide rates for 2010. He points out that the statistics come from three different reporting agencies (FBI, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and CDC) and that each of these agencies defines (i.e., operationalizes) homicide differently.

While Tabarrock gives a brief explanation of the difference in definitions, I was curious as to how exactly homicide is defined by each agency.

I began my quest by going to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website and typing in the word “homicide” into the search bar. I decided the results “FASTSTATS” would be the best place to start. As I scrolled down the page, there it was, the link I needed: “Injury Definitions and Methods.” But alas, there still was not a clear explanation of how homicide is operationalized by the CDC. The best I can gather is that for the CDC, homicide exists within the category of death from injuries. Death from injuries includes “accidents (unintentional injuries), intentional self-harm (suicide), and assault (homicide)” (here, p. 166).

Next, I visited the FBI’s website. I plugged in the word “homicide” into the search bar. The FBI further categorizes homicides based on whether they were justifiable or not. The FBI classifies murder in this way:

“The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program defines murder and nonnegligent manslaughter as the willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another.

The classification of this offense is based solely on police investigation as opposed to the determination of a court, medical examiner, coroner, jury, or other judicial body.  The UCR Program does not include the following situations in this offense classification:  deaths caused by negligence, suicide, or accident; justifiable homicides; and attempts to murder or assaults to murder, which are scored as aggravated assaults.”

The FBI operationalizes homicides differently than the CDC, which partially accounts for their reporting different homicide rates.  Why might the FBI and the CDC operationalize homicides differently? Isn’t every death caused by another person a homicide? This leads us to understanding the importance of knowing who is doing the defining. In this case, we have to consider the different purposes of the FBI and the CDC. To find out the purpose of these agencies, I visited their about pages.

The FBI’s “mission is to help protect you, your children, your communities, and your businesses from the most dangerous threats facing our nation” according to their “About Us.”

The CDC’s “About Page” states that the agency is “dedicated to protecting health and promoting quality of life through the prevention and control of disease, injury, and disability.”

The FBI and CDC have different missions and this is reflected in the different ways in which they operationalize homicide.

When reading or hearing headlines in the news, it is important to dig deeper. Find out how variables are being operationalized. Learn where the statistics come from. Further, exploring the mission of the organization reporting the statistics or operationalizing the variables is critical in fully understanding what the claim actually means.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe in your own words what is meant by operationalization.
  2. Explain how the way in which either the FBI or CDC operationalizes homicide reflects the agency’s mission.
  3. If you were conducting a study about intelligence (IQ), how might you operationalize IQ?
  4.  Find a study that uses IQ as a variable. How is it operationalized by the researchers? How does it differ from the way you operationalized IQ?