It is a common human mental activity to rank order people, objects, or even abstract concepts^ according to some criterion, and rank order items in questionnaires capitalize on our familiarity with this process. As the name suggests, these items contain some sort of a list and respondents are asked to order the items by assigning a number to them according to their preferences. Wilson and McClean (1994) warn us that it may be very demanding to arrange items in order of importance whenever there are more than five ranks requested, and it has also been found, more generally, that rank order items impose a more difficult task on the respondent than single-response items. Furthermore, unlike in a rating scale in which a person can assign the same value to several items (e.g., one can mark 'strongly agree' in all the items in a multi-item scale), in rank order items each sub-component must have a different value even though such a forced choice may not be natural in every case.
In my own research, I have tended to avoid rank order items because it is not easy to process them statistically. We cannot simply count the mean of the ranks for each item across the sample because the numerical values assigned to the items are not the same as in rating scales: they are only an easy technical method to indicate order rather than the extent of endorsement. That is, if something is ranked third, the value '3' does not necessarily mean that the degree of one's attitude is 3 out of, say, 5 (which would be the case in a Likert scale); it only means that the particular target's relevance/importance is, in the respondent's estimation, somewhere between the things ranked second and fourth; the actual value can be very near to the second and miles away from the forth or vice versa. To illustrate this, let us take a short list of items that we may need for travelling abroad:
• credit card tickets plumbing manual.
'Plumbing manual' would probably be ranked by everybody as the least necessary item in the list but by assigning a value of '4' or ' 1' to it (depending on which end we start counting from) its value would be only one less (or more) than the next one is the list, whereas in reality its value for travelling purposes is next to zero (unless you are a plumber...).
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