Constructs & Variables

A construct painted thousands of years ago on the slate rock at Paint Rock, TX. During the equinox the figure at the top right climbs a shaft of light.

(photo by Karen Keifer-Boyd © 2000)


Higher-level concepts are called constructs.

Constructs express the ideas behind a set of particulars.

Construct - a complex abstraction that is not directly observable.

Example: Creativity is a construct generally recognized to consist of flexibility, originality, elaboration, and other concepts.

Constructs change their meaning or are discarded as theories are developed.

Since constructs are not directly observable, researchers use indicators or variables as a way of measuring or classifying most of the particulars of the construct.


"an event, category, behavior, or attribute that expresses a construct and has different values depending on how it is used in a particular study" (M & S, p. 88)

Categorical variable

Continuous or measured variable (values within a range)

Operational Definition of Variables:

Assigns meaning to a variable by specifiying the activities and operations necessary to measure, categorize, or manipulate the variable (M & S, p. 89).

 Forming an Operational Definition of the Construct "Art"

A Process for Selecting a Theoretical Frame for Your Study:
1. What theory of art does your definition of art in the art/not sorting activity indicate that you value?
(Step One: Begin by identifying your beliefs.)
2. Articulate your theory in relationship to prior theories by reading the range of art theories below.
(Step Two: Conduct a literature review to (a) find support for your theory , (b) to consider arguments that oppose your beliefs, and (c) to broaden ways to think about the construct.)
3. Can you develop an operational definition with a specific set of variables that form the construct "art" in the theory you used in defining art?
(Step Three: Select a theoretical framework that will help you focus your analysis.)

 Brief Descriptions of Aesthetic Theories that Underlie What is Valued in Art

Aesthetics (a definition): Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy concerned with constructing theories to understand, judge, and defend judgements about works of art.


 - values art that is an accurate depiction of the "real world" (Aristotle, Samuel Johnson)

- values skilled techniques observable in art product (Hume, Bosanquet, some folk artists)


 - values visual "significant" form over content. Modernism
- believes in universal communication (Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Edmund Burke, Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Beardsley)


 - values how well emotions are communicated (Collingwood)


 - Intention to create something as art is necessary if an object is to be valued as art (A. Coomaraswany, Kant, Dewey)

 Content valued

Great art should present subjects that elevate our minds (Longinus, Ruskin, Tolstoy).

Formalism devalues content: If the belief expressed in a work of art made that thing a work of art, than the mere statement of the belief would itself be a work of art.

Instrumental or Functional theories of art

 - propagandistic function, pragmatism (practical interest), meeting human needs of pleasure, teaching morals/truth. (Morris, Dewey)

Formalism opposes instrumentalism: The uniqueness of art is that it lacks function (Edmund Burke).

 Biobehaviorialist theory

 - art making is a universally necessary behavior (Dissanayake)

Institutional theories

A work of art is an artifact that has had conferred upon it the status for appreciation by a social institution such as a museum (Dickie, Danto)

 Open concept theory

 Good art or valued art is that which fulfills the prevailing cultural aesthetic norms of the culture in which it was created (Morris Weitz, Nelson Goodman).


Emerged in France, after WWII (Lévi Strauss - linguistic analysis in anthropology). Influenced by semiotic theory (de Saussure) - language as a system of signs (object), signifiers (words) & signified (concepts). They looked for hidden systems or essential/universal structures (art as a language):
Paul Klee - "to make the invisible, visible"
Jacques Lacan - structualist psychoanalysis (later work poststructuralist)
Louis Althusser - structuralist Marxism


Believe that we see/know according to the words we have for describing, and in particular in the play of difference in discourse (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Barthes). Differed from structuralist in that they didn't believe in essential structures. Instead they emphasized that signs are conventionally agreed not of natural origin.


 - accepts that meaning is always recreated by new viewers. Metaphor is crucial to interpreting.
(Gadamer) - It is impossible to eliminate the self from the act of interpretation (Ricouer).


 - Values art that addresses social issues & take a stand. Content is valued over form. Every image has never ending or multiple meanings. Believes in identifying differences, not universals (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Habermas, Roland Barthes, Suzi Gablik, Lucy Lippard)

 Social Theory

 - art that contributes to social discourse (Nicos Hajinicolaou, Herbert Read, Gyau, Lalo, Tomars, Pierre Francastel, Gadamer, Heidegger, Janet Wolff, Arnold Hauser)

 Marxist aesthetics

 - emphasizes art as ideology and values art that exposes class distinctions & economic inequities (Classical- Marx , Engels; Phenomenological - Max Weber; Analytical-Carter Ratclif, P. Bourdieu)

 Feminist aesthetics

 - emphasizes art as ideology and values art that exposes representations of gender
(Alcoff, Daly, Rich, Frueh, Echols, Griffin, Pollock, Nochlin, Rush, Brownmiller, Morgan, Solanis, Joreen, Parker)