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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02599

Quantitative Data from Rating Scales: An Epistemological and Methodological Enquiry

  • 1London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom

Rating scales are popular methods for generating quantitative data directly by persons rather than automated technologies. But scholars increasingly challenge their foundations. This article contributes epistemological and methodological analyses of the processes involved in person-generated quantification. They are crucial for measurement because data analyses can reveal information about study phenomena only if relevant properties were encoded systematically in the data. The Transdisciplinary Philosophy-of-Science Paradigm for Research on Individuals (TPS-Paradigm) is applied to explore psychological and social-science concepts of measurement and quantification, including representational measurement theory, psychometric theories and their precursors in psychophysics. These are compared to theories from metrology specifying object-dependence of measurement processes and subject-independence of outcomes as key criteria, which allow tracing data to the instances measured and the ways they were quantified. Separate histories notwithstanding, the article’s basic premise is that general principles of scientific measurement and quantification should apply to all sciences. It elaborates principles by which these metrological criteria can be implemented also in psychology and social sciences, while considering their research objects’ peculiarities. Application of these principles is illustrated by quantifications of individual-specific behaviours (‘personality’). The demands rating methods impose on data-generating persons are deconstructed and compared with the demands involved in other quantitative methods (e.g., ethological observations). These analyses highlight problematic requirements for raters. Rating methods sufficiently specify neither the empirical study phenomena nor the symbolic systems used as data nor rules of assignment between them. Instead, pronounced individual differences in raters’ interpretation and use of items and scales indicate considerable subjectivity in data generation. Together with recoding scale categories into numbers, this introduces a twofold break in the traceability of rating data, compromising interpretability of findings. These insights question common reliability and validity concepts for ratings and provide novel explanations for replicability problems. Specifically, rating methods standardise only data formats but not the actual data generation. Measurement requires data generation processes to be adapted to the study phenomena’s properties and the measurement-executing persons’ abilities and interpretations, rather than to numerical outcome formats facilitating statistical analyses. Researchers must finally investigate how people actually generate ratings to specify the representational systems underlying rating data.

Keywords: rating scales, Qualitative-quantitative integration, Observational Methods, assessment methods, epistemology, Transdisciplinary approach, judgement, Quantitative methods in the social sciences, qualitative methods, Measurement, quantification, rating, Behavior, assessment, Methods - numerical, methods, methodology, Data, Sign Systems

Received: 14 May 2018; Accepted: 03 Dec 2018.

Edited by:

Ulrich Dettweiler, University of Stavanger, Norway

Reviewed by:

Jennifer Hofmann, University of Zurich, Switzerland
Martin Junge, University of Greifswald, Germany
Barbara Hanfstingl, Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Austria  

Copyright: © 2018 Uher. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Jana Uher, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, United Kingdom, j.uher@lse.ac.uk