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What is the Difference between Quantitative and Qualitative Indicators?

Quantitative indicators are commonly believed to be measurements of cold, hard facts and rigid numbers; their validity, truth and objectivity taken as unshakeable facts. They are also seen as “objective and verifiable”. For example, the number of computers in a workplace or the number of telephones in a community; the quantity and frequency of computer and internet - related training workshops. Quantitative indicators deal with outputs, are easier to define and to look for.

On the other hand, qualitative indicators are seen as subjective, unreliable and difficult to verify. They are more difficult to ascertain because they probe the whys of situations and the contexts of people’s decisions, actions and perceptions. However, qualitative indicators are valuable to the evaluation process because projects and initiatives are involved with studying changes in people’s lives and in communities. They seek to measure the impact and evaluate the long-term effects and benefits of a project or an initiative. They focus on people’s own experiences and from a gender analytical/feminist perspective, qualitative indicators are particularly useful and important in understanding women’s experiences and perceptions in relation to empowerment and development. For example, the number of women using telecentres becomes more significant if the information they find and the links they make through the internet contribute to their sense of independence and empowerment.

Properly developed and interpreted, qualitative indicators play a significant role in identifying constraints to implementation and obstacles to success, which may not be readily apparent.

Most project monitoring and evaluation models recommend it is equally important to record outputs and quality of outcomes as well as measure their impacts. The political nature of indicator use must be kept in mind particularly in relation to qualitative indicators because it is often claimed that these indicators are ‘subjective’ or unreliable and therefore of little worth. Reliable methods such as surveys can ensure the reliability and validity of qualitative indicators. (PHASE 2 discusses these methods in more detail.)

An important principle to remember is that qualitative indicators can play an important role in promoting and understanding stakeholders’ perspectives, particularly for women, thus fostering participation of women stakeholders. Developing gender-sensitive indicators in a participatory fashion requires including people’s own indicators of development. [ Guide to Gender-Sensitive Indicators 6,11]

More on Qualitative Indicators

A study of networks explains the subjectivity of qualitative indicators:

“For networks and networking organisations, it is as important to identify indicators that can measure qualitative change as it is to measure quantitative change. At the same time, the concepts of the objective and the subjective in relation to indicators need to be reconsidered. In tradi tional evaluation processes, indicators are supposed to be ‘objective and verifiable’. In practice, most indicators have a subjective element to (in) them. For instance, ‘increased rice production’ may seem to be an objective indicator, but it may be based on subjective assumptions that such an increase is positive, regardless of how this affects the environment or different members of the farming community. Indicators of social change are usually based on subjective criteria of justice and equity. This is as it should be. The important issue is that these criteria are clear. There are, however, ongoing efforts to develop indicators of qualitative achievement of both the tangible and intangible impact of activities on people and society. Work is going on to develop indicators of social and political change, self-reliance and empowerment and, at the same time, to set criteria and standards for ‘subjective’ indicators such as social development and empowerment so that everyone understands what is being measured. Each network and organisation must identify its own indicators, but the following examples from previous efforts can help stimulate this process.” [Karl 63]