By the time you get to the analysis of your data, most of the really difficult work has been done. It’s much more difficult to: define the research problem; develop and implement a sampling plan; conceptualize, operationalize and test your measures; and develop a design structure. If you have done this work well, the analysis of the data is usually a fairly straightforward affair.
In most social research the data analysis involves three major steps, done in roughly this order:
- Cleaning and organizing the data for analysis (Data Preparation)
- Describing the data (Descriptive Statistics)
- Testing Hypotheses and Models (Inferential Statistics)
Data Preparation involves checking or logging the data in; checking the data for accuracy; entering the data into the computer; transforming the data; and developing and documenting a database structure that integrates the various measures.
Descriptive Statistics are used to describe the basic features of the data in a study. They provide simple summaries about the sample and the measures. Together with simple graphics analysis, they form the basis of virtually every quantitative analysis of data. With descriptive statistics you are simply describing what is, what the data shows.
Inferential Statistics investigate questions, models and hypotheses. In many cases, the conclusions from inferential statistics extend beyond the immediate data alone. For instance, we use inferential statistics to try to infer from the sample data what the population thinks. Or, we use inferential statistics to make judgments of the probability that an observed difference between groups is a dependable one or one that might have happened by chance in this study. Thus, we use inferential statistics to make inferences from our data to more general conditions; we use descriptive statistics simply to describe what’s going on in our data.
In most research studies, the analysis section follows these three phases of analysis. Descriptions of how the data were prepared tend to be brief and to focus on only the more unique aspects to your study, such as specific data transformations that are performed. The descriptive statistics that you actually look at can be voluminous. In most write-ups, these are carefully selected and organized into summary tables and graphs that only show the most relevant or important information. Usually, the researcher links each of the inferential analyses to specific research questions or hypotheses that were raised in the introduction, or notes any models that were tested that emerged as part of the analysis. In most analysis write-ups it’s especially critical to not “miss the forest for the trees.” If you present too much detail, the reader may not be able to follow the central line of the results. Often extensive analysis details are appropriately relegated to appendices, reserving only the most critical analysis summaries for the body of the report itself.