Ordinal Variable

Understanding Ordinal Variables in Data Analysis

An ordinal variable is a type of categorical variable that has a clear ordering or ranking of the categories. This means that while the categories have a meaningful sequence, the intervals between the categories are not necessarily equal or known. Ordinal variables are commonly found in surveys and questionnaires, where responses can be ranked but the exact differences between them are not quantifiable.

Characteristics of Ordinal Variables

Ordinal variables possess the following key characteristics:

  • Natural Order: The categories can be arranged in a logical sequence based on their attributes. For example, an ordinal variable could represent educational levels with categories such as "elementary," "high school," "bachelor's," and "master's," which reflect increasing levels of education.
  • Non-Numeric Distinctions: The categories are often non-numeric, and even when numbers are used, they serve as labels rather than quantities. For example, "1st place," "2nd place," and "3rd place" indicate ranking but not the magnitude of difference between the ranks.
  • Unknown Intervals: The distance or difference between the categories is not defined or measurable. For instance, the difference between "satisfied" and "very satisfied" in a customer feedback survey is not quantifiable.

Examples of Ordinal Variables

Ordinal variables are prevalent in various fields and can include:

  • Customer satisfaction levels (e.g., "very unsatisfied," "unsatisfied," "neutral," "satisfied," "very satisfied")
  • Economic status categories (e.g., "low income," "middle income," "high income")
  • Pain severity levels in medical assessments (e.g., "no pain," "mild pain," "moderate pain," "severe pain")
  • Agreement scales in surveys (e.g., "strongly disagree," "disagree," "neutral," "agree," "strongly agree")

Analysis of Ordinal Data

When analyzing ordinal data, certain statistical techniques are more appropriate than others due to the nature of the variable:

  • Descriptive Statistics: Median and mode can be used to describe central tendency, but the mean is not suitable because it assumes equal intervals between categories.
  • Non-Parametric Tests:

    Tests that do not assume a normal distribution or equal intervals, such as the Mann-Whitney U test or Kruskal-Wallis test, are often used for ordinal data.

  • Ordinal Regression:

    This is a type of regression analysis specifically designed for ordinal variables, taking into account the order of the categories.

Challenges with Ordinal Variables

Ordinal variables present unique challenges in data analysis:

  • Subjectivity: The assignment of categories can be subjective, especially in survey responses, leading to potential biases.
  • Limited Mathematical Operations: Because the distances between categories are unknown, mathematical operations like addition and subtraction are not meaningful for ordinal data.
  • Interpretation: The interpretation of results can be challenging since the ordinal scale only provides relative, not absolute, information.


Ordinal variables play a crucial role in data collection and analysis across various domains. Understanding the nature of ordinal data is essential for selecting the right statistical methods and accurately interpreting the results. Despite their limitations, ordinal variables provide valuable insights into ordered categorical data that would otherwise be difficult to quantify.

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