History of Measurement

"The history of science is the history of measurement" (Cattell 1893). This is the first column of a series intended to provoke discussion about the history of measurement in the social sciences. Some issues I invite you to explore with me are:

* What are the major measurement problems in social science? How have our views and approaches changed? (Reliability, Validity, Invariance, Dimensionality, Objectivity...)
* Have we made progress in measurement theory and practice? What is "progress"?
* Who are the major measurement theorists? What are their contributions? (Thorndike, Lazarsfeld, Thurstone, Rasch, Guttman, Coombs, Loevinger...)
* What is a "history" of social science measurement? By whom and for whom written? In what way different from the philosophy of measurement?

Constructing the History of Measurement:
A possible discussion framework is Michael M Sokal's (1984) "eleven- part recipe" for the history of testing. His first recommendation is that histories be empirical, i.e. make use of manuscript collections which include unpublished correspondence such as the Terman papers at Stanford or the Wood papers at ETS.

Next, he recommends a thorough treatment of technical issues. To make the evolution of measurement theory and practice understandable requires study and presentation of the statistical and quantitative details, as in comparative studies of theorists (Andrich 1978, 1985), and the development of a history of invariance (Engelhard 1984, 1990).

Third, he recommends detailed descriptions and discussions of the terms used. Merely referring to general concepts, such as objectivity, reliability or validity, without further definition is not enough. Wood (1923) views "objectivity" as the reliability of scoring that is obtained with true-false and multiple-choice ("objective") items. E L Thorndike's definition (1919) is broader: "a perfectly objective scale is a scale in respect to whose meaning all competent thinkers agree".

Sokal points out that measurement issues and practices develop in different contexts. There are societal, disciplinary, and international contexts. The societal problems faced by Terman in the measurement of intelligence in the US during WWI were different from those faced by Binet in France. Educational researchers, psychologists and sociologists attack similar measurement problems with different methods, and use similar methods to manage different problems. Even though psychology has dominated the work on testing, historians need an interdisciplinary approach that integrates the contributions of sociologists, economists, anthropologists, political scientists and statisticians.

Sokal calls for a personal approach, focussing on how a measurement theorist's individual experiences shaped his or her ideas about the theory and practice of testing, like the biographical analyses of Rasch (Wright 1980), Thelma Thurstone (Bashaw & Bashaw 1988) and E L Thorndike (Clifford 1984).

Although some histories may concentrate on narrow issues, the history of measurement must also be presented broadly in terms of subject and period (Linden & Linden 1968, Dubois 1970).

Lastly, Sokal calls for dispassionate and objective treatments. He criticizes Gould (1981) as too polemical. Emotional treatments of sensitive issues, like the nature versus nurture debates, invite distortion.

Sokal's recipe is far-reaching, but some ingredients are missing. He considers only an audience of historians, not measurement theorists or practitioners. He does not relate the philosophy of science to the history of measurement. He overlooks the impact of technology, especially the computer. Finally, he does not say who will write these histories: insiders (Seagoe 1975, Stigler 1986) or outsiders (Sokal 1987, Porter 1986)?

My hope is that histories of measurement will not be left to historians, but that psychometricians will also contribute. There are many "histories" of measurement.


"It is really strange that human beings are normally deaf to the strongest arguments while they are always inclined to overestimate measuring accuracies."
Albert Einstein in a letter to Max Born, quoted in Paul Feyerabend, "Against Method", 1975, p. 75



History of Measurement, G Engelhard Jr … Rasch Measurement Transactions, 1990, 4:2 p. 110




Rasch Publications
Rasch Measurement Transactions (free, online) Rasch Measurement research papers (free, online) Probabilistic Models for Some Intelligence and Attainment Tests, Georg Rasch Applying the Rasch Model 2nd. Ed., Bond & Fox Best Test Design, Wright & Stone
Rating Scale Analysis, Wright & Masters Introduction to Rasch Measurement, E. Smith & R. Smith Introduction to Many-Facet Rasch Measurement, Thomas Eckes Invariant Measurement: Using Rasch Models in the Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences, George Engelhard, Jr. Statistical Analyses for Language Testers, Rita Green
Rasch Models: Foundations, Recent Developments, and Applications, Fischer & Molenaar Journal of Applied Measurement Rasch models for measurement, David Andrich Constructing Measures, Mark Wilson Rasch Analysis in the Human Sciences, Boone, Stave, Yale

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