Thurstone's Missed Opportunity

Leon Thurstone (1959: 214) makes some remarks about his career that have a remarkable parallel in the life of James Clerk Maxwell at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, in the 19th century.

Thurstone says, "When I was working on attitude measurement, I found great interest in the application of attitude scales to all sorts of groups, but I was disappointed in the relative lack of interest in the methodological problems which seemed to be more important for the development of social science. I had only scratched the surface of an important field that justified more fundamental methodological study. In the early thirties we prepared quite a number of attitude scales. When I realized that the psychometric laboratory at the University of Chicago might be swamped with such an enterprise, I decided to stop it. All of the incomplete work on a number of attitude scales was abandoned to make time and room for the development of multiple factor analysis which was already well under way."

Back in the 1870s, the Cavendish laboratory was focused on the new science of electrical measurements. In both the Chicago and Cambridge laboratories, new measures were being developed and applied at rapid rates. Just as Thurstone feared that "Chicago might be swamped" by these projects, so Maxwell stated that "I do not expect or think it desirable that a manufactory of `ohms' [resistance boxes] should be established" at the Cavendish. The key difference between the Chicago and Cambridge labs was in the directions Thurstone and Maxwell took their work after realizing that their universities were not the place for a factory or workshop atmosphere.

Thurstone's decision to pursue factor analysis instead of scale development was partly in reaction to his disappointment at the lack of interest his colleagues showed in measurement work. This lack of interest and Thurstone's unwillingness to push the issue was tragic on a Promethean scale: "In his measurement work, Thurstone stole fire from the gods. In retribution, they chained him to factor analysis" (attrib. to Lumsden). The tragedy is compounded in that Thurstone did not perceive that there was another direction in which he might have taken psychological measurement theory and application.

This third direction is indicated by the activities Maxwell undertook at Cambridge. "Maxwell outlined a metrological program for the new Cavendish Laboratory, a program for the verification of others' resistances and devices, and for the production of new, revised standard instruments. [It became] a center of Victorian electrotechnical metrology, certifying electrometers and resistance boxes for the cable-manufacturing industry and the nascent network of physics laboratories" (Schaffer 1992: 24).

Had Thurstone's thinking followed Maxwell's, he might have proposed a metrological program aimed at verifying and relating others' attitude measuring instruments, and using them to improve the reference standards against which any measuring instrument must be ultimately calibrated if a field is to usefully exchange quantitative information.

The need for such metrological standards was a clear consequence of Thurstone's (1928: 547) "crucial experimental test" which required that "a measuring instrument not be seriously affected in its measuring function by the object of measurement." When one requires, with Thurstone, that "the scale values of the statements [on a survey] should not be affected by the opinions of the people who help to construct it," and when one also joins him in making the converse requirement, that the scale values of the measures should not be affected by the particular questions asked(1926: 446), the logical consequence is that all scales intended to measure a particular variable should do so in a common metric. A common metric is defined and maintained by a reference standard. Maxwell accelerated the advance of physics by his work with reference standards. Social science still suffers because Thurstone overlooked his opportunity.

William P. Fisher, Jr.

Schaffer S. Late Victorian metrology and its instrumentation: A manufactory of Ohms. In: Bud R., Cozzens S.E.(Eds.) Invisible connections: instruments, institutions, and science. Bellingham, WA: SPIE Optical Engineering Press, 1992: 23-56.

Thurstone L. L. 1926. The scoring of individual performance. Jour of Educ Psychology 17 446-457.

Thurstone L. L. 1928. Attitudes can be measured. American Journal of Sociology. 33, 529-554.

Thurstone L. L. 1959. The Measurement of Values. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Thurstone's Missed Opportunity. Fisher W. P. Jr. … Rasch Measurement Transactions, 1997, 11:1 p. 554.

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