Many concepts that social work researchers study cannot be directly observed or measured. Concepts like self-esteem, depression, and job satisfaction are just a few of numerous examples. These concepts are called latent variables, and they are latent in the sense that they are hidden from direct observation or they are hypothetical constructs hypothesized to facilitate scientific explanation. The focus of this chapter is to provide a theoretical explanation of latent variables. This is done by first clarifying the difference between latent and manifest variables. Then, key principles of latent variable theory are reviewed, with an emphasis on dimensionality and causality. Third, we briefly introduce the strategies available for analyzing latent variables. Issues of validity and reliability are reviewed, and the chapter concludes with a focus on latent variables in context of theory development and testing.
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