There always been an issue about whether quantifying is as inherently subjective as qualitative data.
A recent article titled 'On quantitizing' is worth a read. The writing is quite sociological postmodern at times but the examples on page 4 and 5 are insightful.
It argues that quantifying social data hides a lot of subjective judgements by respondents and researchers that need unpicking to fully realise what quantitative information has been captured.
One study on women's experiences of unplanned cesarean births asked them to sum up their their experience on a scale from 0=bad to 10=good. In the study no one rated their experience as 0 even though some women had just finished narrating highly negative stories about their birth experiences. One woman explicitly stated "I wouldn't put myself at 0."
Similarly in a study using two rating systems to assess perceptions of success in life, one from 0=not at all successful to 10= extremely successful and the other -5=not at all successful to 5=extremely successful. 34% o respondents chose a value between -5 and 0 while only 13% chose a value (in the formally equivalent scale) between 0 and 5 on the 0-10 point scale. According to the study author when 'not at all successful' was attached to 0 respondents took this to mean absence of outstanding achievements while when it was attached to -5 with 0 as midpoint they interpreted this as 'presence of failures'.
For me this has implications for evaluating health and wellbeing status using questionnaires when measuring the benefits of environmental and social interventions.
Image courtesy of Darren Hester on Flickr