April 28, 2016

Mindfulness and Methodological Confusion

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

You have probably heard of the word mindfulness. The term is so commonplace these days that the only people who may not have heard about it are the ones who are practicing it diligently in some remote cave in the Himalayas. As I wrote about in a previous post, there is a prevailing sentiment that we are in the midst of a mindfulness revolution. From podcasts and apps to weekend retreats and self-help books, mindfulness is definitely in the moment (pun intended).

The popularity of mindfulness has also taken off among academic researchers. According to the American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA), the number of academic publications on mindfulness has increased over 2,000% in the past 15 years from a mere 22 articles in 2000 to well over 500 articles in 2014 (although the actual number of research articles may be larger).

The scholarship on mindfulness spans many disciplines including neuroscience, education, and psychology. Sociological research on mindfulness is sorely lacking, however. Much like the absence of sociological research on happiness, sociologists have not yet jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon. Maybe one reason we don't yet have a fully articulated "sociology of mindfulness" is that we have not figured out how to make methodological sense of mindfulness.

The first problem is figuring out how to operationalize mindfulness. Operationalization is the word researchers use to refer to how they define the variables they are studying. Unfortunately, there is no generally agreed upon definition of mindfulness. Despite the fact that we are witnessing a burgeoning industry of mindfulness-related research, and despite early attempts at an operational definition, the concept of mindfulness is still fraught with "intractable disagreements" about what it is and how we should define it.

A second and related problem is whether mindfulness is understood as an independent or dependent variable. Researchers use variables to identify the things they are trying to measure and the two types, independent or dependent, help us figure out cause and effect.

Independent variables (IV) exist on their own; ideally and theoretically, they are not altered with the presence of another variable. Independent variables are studied to see what effect they have on other things. For example, race and gender are commonly used independent variables in sociological research because we are trying to understand how someone's race or gender may influence other factors in their life (such as their educational success, occupation, or income).

Dependent variables (DV) do not stand on their own; they are influenced by or dependent on independent variables. For example, educational success or failure does not just happen. Whether one does well in school is dependent on a host of potential factors (independent variables) such as one's social class, the type of school you attend, the teachers you have, the country you live in, or the whether you have enough to eat each day.

What gets confusing about independent and dependent variables is that some things are both independent and dependent variables. For example, educational success (dependent variable) may be related to or correlated with having enough food to eat each day (independent variable). But whether you have enough to eat (dependent variable) may be a result of your parent's socio-economic status and other independent variables. So access to food is an independent variable in relation to educational success but a dependent variable in relation to social class.

When we are trying to pin down mindfulness, things get even more confusing. Among the growing body of literature on mindfulness, we not only see examples where mindfulness is operationalized as either an independent or dependent variable; in addition, there are instances where mindfulness is being construed as both an independent and dependent variable. Reading the popular accounts on the benefits of mindfulness, you can come away with the conclusion that if you practice mindfulness you develop mindfulness. Mindfulness is simultaneously both an independent and dependent variable. How confusing!

I recently helped organize a conference on Mindfulness and Health and one of the keynote speakers was David Vago, a leading neuroscientist who studies mindfulness. I asked Vago about the muddled methodology of mindfulness and he agreed that it is a serious problem:

You are hinting at one of the biggest issues in this field. My take is that it is used in so many ways—as a state, trait, process, type of meditation, systematic form of mental training, independent variable, or dependent variable. I've resorted to simply contextualizing what we mean when we use the word/concept. It can be used across these contexts, but we must be clear that it can be used differentially.

This response highlights one of the key tenets of any methodological undertaking: define your terms clearly. If you are doing any type of research project, you must explain how and why you are using your terms the way you are. A clear definition is especially important if, as in the case of mindfulness, your variables can be conceptualized (or operationalized) in different ways by different people. Just because you often use a concept in a particular way does not mean that your definition is commonly accepted by all. By defining your terms clearly and consistently you will lessen the possibility of methodological confusion and allow people to more easily make sense of your research.


The first problem is figuring out how to operationalize mindfulness. yep!!

This is really helpful! I've been practicing mindfulness and it helped me a lot! I'm subscribing to you now! :)


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