A polarimeter is the basic scientific instrument used to make these measurements, although this term is rarely used to describe a polarimetry process performed by a computer, such as is done in polarimetric synthetic aperture radar.
Polarimetry of thin films and surfaces is commonly known as ellipsometry.
Polarimetry can be used to measure various optical properties of a material, including linear birefringence, circular birefringence (also known as optical rotation or optical rotary dispersion), linear dichroism, circular dichroism and scattering.
To measure these various properties, there have been many designs of polarimeters. Some are archaic and some are in current use. The most sensitive polarimeters are based on interferometers, while more conventional polarimeters are based on arrangements of polarising filters, wave plates or other devices.
Polarimetry can also be included in computational analysis of waves. For example, radars often consider wave polarization in post-processing to improve the characterization of the targets. In this case, polarimetry can be used to estimate the fine texture of a material, help resolve the orientation of small structures in the target, and, when circularly-polarized antennas are used, resolve the number of bounces of the received signal (the chirality of circularly polarized waves alternates with each reflection).
Optically active samples, such as solutions of chiral molecules, often exhibit circular birefringence. Circular birefringence causes rotation of the polarisation of plane polarised light as it passes through the sample.
A simple polarimeter to measure this rotation consists of a long tube with flat glass ends, into which the sample is placed. At each end of the tube is a Nicol prism or other polarizer. Light is shone through the tube, and the prism at the other end, attached to an eye-piece, is rotated until all light is shut off. The angle of rotation is then read off of a scale. The specific rotation of the sample may then be calculated. Temperature can affect the rotation of light which should be accounted for in the calculations.