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Unit of Analysis

One of the most important ideas in a research project is the unit of analysis. The unit of analysis is the major entity that you are analyzing in your study. For instance, any of the following could be a unit of analysis in a study:

  • individuals
  • groups
  • artifacts (books, photos, newspapers)
  • geographical units (town, census tract, state)
  • social interactions (dyadic relations, divorces, arrests)

Why is it called the ‘unit of analysis’ and not something else (like, the unit of sampling)? Because it is the analysis you do in your study that determines what the unit is. For instance, if you are comparing the children in two classrooms on achievement test scores, the unit is the individual child because you have a score for each child. On the other hand, if you are comparing the two classes on classroom climate, your unit of analysis is the group, in this case the classroom, because you only have a classroom climate score for the class as a whole and not for each individual student. For different analyses in the same study you may have different units of analysis. If you decide to base an analysis on student scores, the individual is the unit. But you might decide to compare average classroom performance. In this case, since the data that goes into the analysis is the average itself (and not the individuals' scores) the unit of analysis is actually the group. Even though you had data at the student level, you use aggregates in the analysis. In many areas of social research these hierarchies of analysis units have become particularly important and have spawned a whole area of statistical analysis sometimes referred to as hierarchical modeling. This is true in education, for instance, where we often compare classroom performance but collected achievement data at the individual student level.