GuidesResearch methodsUnit of analysis: definition, types, examples, and more

Unit of analysis: definition, types, examples, and more

Last updated

16 April 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

Choosing the correct unit of analysis is crucial in research. The unit of analysis can reveal more about your study subject and guide the decisions about how to continue with the research.

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What is a unit of analysis?

A unit of analysis is an object of study within a research project. It is the smallest unit a researcher can use to identify and describe a phenomenon—the 'what' or 'who' the researcher wants to study. 

For example, suppose a consultancy firm is hired to train the sales team in a solar company that is struggling to meet its targets. To evaluate their performance after the training, the unit of analysis would be the sales team—it's the main focus of the study. 

Different methods, such as surveys, interviews, or sales data analysis, can be used to evaluate the sales team's performance and determine the effectiveness of the training.

Units of observation vs. units of analysis

A unit of observation refers to the actual items or units being measured or collected during the research. In contrast, a unit of analysis is the entity that a researcher can comment on or make conclusions about at the end of the study.

In the example of the solar company sales team, the unit of observation would be the individual sales transactions or deals made by the sales team members. In contrast, the unit of analysis would be the sales team as a whole.

The firm may observe and collect data on individual sales transactions, but the ultimate conclusion would be based on the sales team's overall performance, as this is the entity that the firm is hired to improve.

In some studies, the unit of observation may be the same as the unit of analysis, but researchers need to define both clearly to themselves and their audiences.

Unit of analysis types

Below are the main types of units of analysis:

  1. Individuals – These are the smallest levels of analysis.

  2. Groups – These are people who interact with each other.

  3. Artifacts –These are material objects created by humans that a researcher can study using empirical methods.

  4. Geographical units – These are smaller than a nation and range from a province to a neighborhood.

  5. Social interactions – These are formal or informal interactions between society members.

Importance of selecting the correct unit of analysis in research

Selecting the correct unit of analysis helps reveal more about the subject you are studying and how to continue with the research. It also helps determine the information you should use in the study. For instance, if a researcher has a large sample, the unit of analysis will help decide whether to focus on the whole population or a subset of it.

Examples of a unit of analysis

Here are examples of a unit of analysis:

  • Individuals – A person, an animal, etc.

  • Groups – Gangs, roommates, etc. 

  • Artifacts – Phones, photos, books, etc.  

  • Geographical units – Provinces, counties, states, or specific areas such as neighborhoods, city blocks, or townships

  • Social interaction – Friendships, romantic relationships, etc.

Factors to consider when selecting a unit of analysis

The main things to consider when choosing a unit of analysis are:

Research questions and hypotheses

Research questions can be descriptive if the study seeks to describe what exists or what is going on.

It can be relational if the study seeks to look at the relationship between variables. Or, it can be causal if the research aims at determining whether one or more variables affect or cause one or more outcome variables.

Your study's research question and hypothesis should guide you in choosing the correct unit of analysis.

Data availability and quality

Consider the nature of the data collected and the time spent observing each participant or studying their behavior. You should also consider the scale used to measure variables.

Some studies involve measuring every variable on a one-to-one scale, while others use variables with discrete values. All these influence the selection of a unit of analysis.

Feasibility and practicality

Look at your study and think about the unit of analysis that would be feasible and practical.

Theoretical framework and research design

The theoretical framework is crucial in research as it introduces and describes the theory explaining why the problem under research exists. As a structure that supports the theory of a study, it is a critical consideration when choosing the unit of analysis. Moreover, consider the overall strategy for collecting responses to your research questions.

Common mistakes when choosing a unit of analysis

Below are common errors that occur when selecting a unit of analysis:

Reductionism

This error occurs when a researcher uses data from a lower-level unit of analysis to make claims about a higher-level unit of analysis. This includes using individual-level data to make claims about groups.

The debate on who began the civil rights movement in the US is a great example illustrating reductionism. Some credit the movement to Rosa Parks for her "civil disobedience," which gave others the courage to stand against racist actions, beliefs, and policies. 

However, claiming that Rosa Parks started the movement would be reductionist. There are other factors behind the rise and success of the US civil rights movement. These include the Supreme Court’s historic decision to desegregate schools, protests over legalized racial segregation, and the formation of groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In short, the movement is attributable to various political, social, and economic factors.  

Ecological fallacy

This mistake occurs when researchers use data from a higher-level unit of analysis to make claims about one lower-level unit of analysis. It usually occurs when only group-level data is collected, but the researcher makes claims about individuals.

For instance, let's say a study seeks to understand whether addictions to electronic gadgets are more common in certain universities than others.

The researcher moves on and obtains data on the percentage of gadget-addicted students from different universities around the country. But looking at the data, the researcher notes that universities with engineering programs have more cases of gadget additions than campuses without the programs.

Concluding that engineering students are more likely to become addicted to their electronic gadgets would be inappropriate. The data available is only about gadget addiction rates by universities; thus, one can only make conclusions about institutions, not individual students at those universities.

Making claims about students while the data available is about the university puts the researcher at risk of committing an ecological fallacy.

The lowdown

A unit of analysis is what you would consider the primary emphasis of your study. It is what you want to discuss after your study. Researchers should determine a unit of analysis that keeps the context required to make sense of the data. They should also keep the unit of analysis in mind throughout the analysis process to protect the reliability of the results.

FAQs

What is the most common unit of analysis?

The individual is the most prevalent unit of analysis.

Can the unit of analysis and the unit of observation be one?

Some situations have the same unit of analysis and observation. For instance, let's say a tutor is hired to improve the oral French proficiency of a student who finds it difficult. A few months later, the tutor wants to evaluate the student's proficiency based on what they have taught them for the time period. In this case, the student is both the unit of analysis and the unit of observation.

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