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Measurement Scales and Data Types

It is important, in statistical analysis, to know about the different scales of measurement,

these are:

Scale with a fixed and defined interval e.g. temperature or time.

Scale for ordering observations from low to high with any ties attributed to lack of
measurement sensitivity e.g. score from a questionnaire.

NOMINAL with order

Scale for grouping into categories with order e.g. mild, moderate or severe. This can
be difficult to separate from ordinal.

NOMINAL without order

Scale for grouping into unique categories e.g. eye colour.

As for nominal but two categories only e.g. male/female.

In addition to the classification of measurement scales, other related terms are used to
describe types of data:

CATEGORICAL vs. NUMERICAL (quantitative vs. qualitative)

Data that represent categories, such as dichotomous (two categories) and nominal
(more than two categories) observations, are collectively called categorical
(qualitative). Data that are counted or measured using a numerically defined method
are called numerical (quantitative).


Discrete data arise from observations that can only take certain numerical values,
usually counts such as number of children or number of patients attending a clinic in
a year. Ordered categorical data are sometimes treated as discrete data, this is
wrong. For example, using the Registrar General's classification of social class, it
would be wrong to say that class I is five times the socio-economic status as class V,
as there is not a strict numerical relationship between these categories. It follows,
therefore, that average social class is a meaningless statistic. Thus, ordered
categorical data should not be treated as discrete data for statistical analysis.
Discrete data may be treated as ordered categorical data in statistical analysis, but
some information is lost in doing so.

Continuous data are numerical data that can theoretically be measured in infinitely
small units. For example, blood pressure is usually measured to the nearest 2mm Hg,
but could be measured with much greater resolution of difference. The interval
measurement scale is intended for continuous data. Sometimes continuous data are
given discrete values at certain thresholds, for example age a last birthday is a
discrete value but age itself is a continuous quantity; in these situations it is
reasonable to treat discrete values as continuous. Remember that information is lost
when continuous data are recorded only in ranges (ordered categories), and the
statistical analysis of continuous data is more powerful than that of categorical data.


Percentages or ratios summarise two pieces of information, namely their constituent
numerator and denominator values. Simple ratios (0 to 1, i.e. the denominator is the
maximum possible value that the numerator can take) can be treated as continuous
data. More difficult to analyse data arise when the ratio represents a change, and the
value can be negative. Ratios of observations compared with reference values, e.g.
height relative to the mean of a reference population for a given sex and age, are
difficult to handle as values may fall either side of 1 (100%).

Many statistical methods are appropriate only for data of certain measurement scales.
When selecting a statistical method, it is essential to understand how the data to be
analysed were measured. The best stage of investigation for pondering measurement
scales is the design stage, at which the statistical limitations imposed by certain
measurement scales may influence your choice of observations and methods of

Scales of Measurement in Statistics

Measurement scales are used to categorize and/or quantify variables. This lesson
describes the four scales of measurement that are commonly used in statistical analysis:
nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio scales.
Properties of Measurement Scales
Each scale of measurement satisfies one or more of the following properties of

Identity. Each value on the measurement scale has a unique meaning.

Magnitude. Values on the measurement scale have an ordered relationship to one

another. That is, some values are larger and some are smaller.

Equal intervals. Scale units along the scale are equal to one another. This means,
for example, that the difference between 1 and 2 would be equal to the difference
between 19 and 20.

A minimum value of zero. The scale has a true zero point, below which no
values exist.

Nominal Scale of Measurement

The nominal scale of measurement only satisfies the identity property of measurement.
Values assigned to variables represent a descriptive category, but have no inherent
numerical value with respect to magnitude.
Gender is an example of a variable that is measured on a nominal scale. Individuals may
be classified as "male" or "female", but neither value represents more or less "gender"
than the other. Religion and political affiliation are other examples of variables that are
normally measured on a nominal scale.
Ordinal Scale of Measurement
The ordinal scale has the property of both identity and magnitude. Each value on the
ordinal scale has a unique meaning, and it has an ordered relationship to every other
value on the scale.
An example of an ordinal scale in action would be the results of a horse race, reported as
"win", "place", and "show". We know the rank order in which horses finished the race.
The horse that won finished ahead of the horse that placed, and the horse that placed
finished ahead of the horse that showed. However, we cannot tell from this ordinal scale
whether it was a close race or whether the winning horse won by a mile.
Interval Scale of Measurement
The interval scale of measurement has the properties of identity, magnitude, and equal
A perfect example of an interval scale is the Fahrenheit scale to measure temperature.
The scale is made up of equal temperature units, so that the difference between 40 and
50 degrees Fahrenheit is equal to the difference between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
With an interval scale, you know not only whether different values are bigger or smaller,
you also know how much bigger or smaller they are. For example, suppose it is 60
degrees Fahrenheit on Monday and 70 degrees on Tuesday. You know not only that it was
hotter on Tuesday, you also know that it was 10 degrees hotter.

Ratio Scale of Measurement

The ratio scale of measurement satisfies all four of the properties of measurement:
identity, magnitude, equal intervals, and a minimum value of zero.
The weight of an object would be an example of a ratio scale. Each value on the weight
scale has a unique meaning, weights can be rank ordered, units along the weight scale
are equal to one another, and the scale has a minimum value of zero.
Weight scales have a minimum value of zero because objects at rest can be weightless,
but they cannot have negative weight.
Test Your Understanding
Problem 1
Consider the centigrade scale for measuring temperature. Which of the following
measurement properties is satisfied by the centigrade scale?
I. Magnitude.
II. Equal intervals.
III. A minimum value of zero.

(A) I only
(B) II only
(C) III only
(D) I and II
(E) II and III
The correct answer is (D). The centigrade scale has the magnitude property because
each value on the scale can be ranked as larger or smaller than any other value. And it
has the equal intervals property because the scale is made up of equal units.
However, the centigrade scale does not have a minimum value of zero. Water freezes at
zero degrees centigrade, but temperatures get colder than that. In the arctic,
temperatures are almost always below zero.
Levels of measurement
What a scale actually means and what we can do with it depends on what its numbers
represent. Numbers can be grouped into 4 types or levels: nominal, ordinal, interval, and
ratio. Nominal is the most simple, and ratio the most sophisticated. Each level possesses
the characteristics of the preceding level, plus an additional quality.
Nominal is hardly measurement. It refers to quality more than quantity. A nominal level
of measurement is simply a matter of distinguishing by name, e.g., 1 = male, 2 =
female. Even though we are using the numbers 1 and 2, they do not denote quantity. The
binary category of 0 and 1 used for computers is a nominal level of measurement. They
are categories or classifications. Nominal measurement is like using categorical levels of
variables, described in the Doing Scientific Research section of the Introduction module.

MEAL PREFERENCE: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
RELIGIOUS PREFERENCE: 1 = Buddhist, 2 = Muslim, 3 = Christian, 4 =
Jewish, 5 = Other
POLITICAL ORIENTATION: Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green
Nominal time of day - categories; no additional information
Ordinal refers to order in measurement. An ordinal scale indicates direction, in addition
to providing nominal information. Low/Medium/High; or Faster/Slower are examples of
ordinal levels of measurement. Ranking an experience as a "nine" on a scale of 1 to 10
tells us that it was higher than an experience ranked as a "six." Many psychological
scales or inventories are at the ordinal level of measurement.
RANK: 1st place, 2nd place, ... last place
Ordinal time of day - indicates direction or order of occurrence; spacing between is
Interval scales provide information about order, and also possess equal intervals. From
the previous example, if we knew that the distance between 1 and 2 was the same as
that between 7 and 8 on our 10-point rating scale, then we would have an interval scale.
An example of an interval scale is temperature, either measured on a Fahrenheit or
Celsius scale. A degree represents the same underlying amount of heat, regardless of
where it occurs on the scale. Measured in Fahrenheit units, the difference between a
temperature of 46 and 42 is the same as the difference between 72 and 68. Equalinterval scales of measurement can be devised for opinions and attitudes. Constructing
them involves an understanding of mathematical and statistical principles beyond those
covered in this course. But it is important to understand the different levels of
measurement when using and interpreting scales.

TIME OF DAY on a 12-hour clock
POLITICAL ORIENTATION: Score on standardized scale of political
OTHER scales constructed so as to possess equal intervals
Interval time of day - equal intervals; analog (12-hr.) clock, difference between 1 and 2
pm is same as difference between 11 and 12 am
In addition to possessing the qualities of nominal, ordinal, and interval scales, a ratio
scale has an absolute zero (a point where none of the quality being measured exists).
Using a ratio scale permits comparisons such as being twice as high, or one-half as
much. Reaction time (how long it takes to respond to a signal of some sort) uses a ratio
scale of measurement -- time. Although an individual's reaction time is always greater

than zero, we conceptualize a zero point in time, and can state that a response of 24
milliseconds is twice as fast as a response time of 48 milliseconds.
RULER: inches or centimeters

YEARS of work experience

INCOME: money earned last year

NUMBER of children

GPA: grade point average

Ratio - 24-hr. time has an absolute 0 (midnight); 14 o'clock is twice as long from
midnight as 7 o'clock
The level of measurement for a particular variable is defined by the highest category
that it achieves. For example, categorizing someone as extroverted (outgoing) or
introverted (shy) is nominal. If we categorize people 1 = shy, 2 = neither shy nor
outgoing, 3 = outgoing, then we have an ordinal level of measurement. If we use a
standardized measure of shyness (and there are such inventories), we would probably
assume the shyness variable meets the standards of an interval level of measurement.
As to whether or not we might have a ratio scale of shyness, although we might be able
to measure zero shyness, it would be difficult to devise a scale where we would be
comfortable talking about someone's being 3 times as shy as someone else.
Measurement at the interval or ratio level is desirable because we can use the more
powerful statistical procedures available for Means and Standard Deviations. To have this
advantage, oftenordinal data are treated as though they were interval; for example,
subjective ratings scales (1 = terrible, 2= poor, 3 = fair, 4 = good, 5 = excellent). The
scale probably does not meet the requirement of equal intervals -- we don't know that
the difference between 2 (poor) and 3 (fair) is the same as the difference between 4
(good) and 5 (excellent). In order to take advantage of more powerful statistical
techniques, researchers often assume that the intervals are equal.
What is the mode?

The mode is the most commonly occurring value in a distribution.

Consider this dataset showing the retirement age of 11 people, in whole years:
54, 54, 54, 55, 56, 57, 57, 58, 58, 60, 60

This table shows a simple frequency distribution of the retirement age data.






The most commonly occurring value is 54, therefore the mode of this distribution is 54
Advantage of the mode:
The mode has an advantage over the median and the mean as it can be found for
both numerical and categorical (non-numerical) data.
Limitations of the mode:
The are some limitations to using the mode. In some distributions, the mode may not
reflect the centre of the distribution very well. When the distribution of retirement age is
ordered from lowest to highest value, it is easy to see that the centre of the distribution
is 57 years, but the mode is lower, at 54 years.
54, 54, 54, 55, 56, 57, 57, 58, 58, 60, 60
It is also possible for there to be more than one mode for the same distribution of data,
(bi-modal, or multi-modal). The presence of more than one mode can limit the ability of
the mode in describing the centre or typical value of the distribution because a single
value to describe the centre cannot be identified.
In some cases, particularly where the data are continuous, the distribution may have no
mode at all (i.e. if all values are different).
In cases such as these, it may be better to consider using the median or mean, or group
the data in to appropriate intervals, and find the modal class.
What is the median?
The median is the middle value in distribution when the values are arranged in
ascending or descending order.
The median divides the distribution in half (there are 50% of observations on either side
of the median value). In a distribution with an odd number of observations, the median
value is the middle value.
Looking at the retirement age distribution (which has 11 observations), the median is the
middle value, which is 57 years:
54, 54, 54, 55, 56, 57, 57, 58, 58, 60, 60

When the distribution has an even number of observations, the median value is the
mean of the two middle values. In the following distribution, the two middle values are
56 and 57, therefore the median equals 56.5 years:
52, 54, 54, 54, 55, 56, 57, 57, 58, 58, 60, 60

Advantage of the median:

The median is less affected by outliers and skewed data than the mean, and is usually
the preferred measure of central tendency when the distribution is not symmetrical.
Limitation of the median:
The median cannot be identified for categorical nominal data, as it cannot be logically
What is the mean?
The mean is the sum of the value of each observation in a dataset divided by
the number of observations. This is also known as the arithmetic average.
Looking at the retirement age distribution again:
54, 54, 54, 55, 56, 57, 57, 58, 58, 60, 60
The mean is calculated by adding together all the values
(54+54+54+55+56+57+57+58+58+60+60 = 623) and dividing by the number of
observations (11) which equals 56.6 years.
Advantage of the mean:
The mean can be used for both continuous and discrete numeric data.
Limitations of the mean:
The mean cannot be calculated for categorical data, as the values cannot be summed.
As the mean includes every value in the distribution the mean is influenced by outliers
and skewed distributions.
What else do I need to know about the mean?
The population mean is indicated by the Greek symbol (pronounced mu). When the
mean is calculated on a distribution from a sample it is indicated by the
symbol xx (pronounced X-bar).