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Ordinal Variables

Like nominal-level variables, ordinal variables are generally exhaustive and mutually exclusive, but they have one additional property: Their values can be rank ordered. Any variable measured as high, medium, or low, like socioeconomic class, is ordinal. The three classes are, in theory, mutually exclusive and exhaustive. In addition, a person who is labeled ‘‘middle class’’ is lower in the social class hierarchy than someone labeled ‘‘high class’’ and higher in the same hierarchy than someone labeled ‘‘lower class.’’ What ordinal variables do not tell us is how much more.

Scales of opinion—like the familiar ‘‘strongly agree,’’ ‘‘agree,’’ ‘‘neutral,’’ ‘‘disagree,’’ ‘‘strongly disagree’’ found on so many surveys—are ordinal measures. They measure an internal state, agreement, in terms of less and more, but not in terms of how much more.

This is the most important characteristic of ordinal measures: There is no way to tell how far apart the attributes are from one another. A person who is middle class might be twice as wealthy and three times as educated as a person who is lower class. Or he or she might be three times as wealthy and four times as educated. A person who ‘‘agrees strongly’’ with a statement may agree twice as much as someone who says they ‘‘agree’’—or eight times as much, or half again as much. There is no way to tell.

 
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