Chapter 4: Measurement and Units of Analysis

4.4 Units of Analysis and Units of Observation

Another point to consider when designing a research project, and which might differ slightly in qualitative and quantitative studies, has to do with units of analysis and units of observation. These two items concern what you, the researcher, actually observe in the course of your data collection and what you hope to be able to say about those observations. Table 3.1 provides a summary of the differences between units of analysis and observation.

Unit of Analysis

A unit of analysis is the entity that you wish to be able to say something about at the end of your study, probably what you would consider to be the main focus of your study.

Unit of Observation

A unit of observation is the item (or items) that you actually observe, measure, or collect in the course of trying to learn something about your unit of analysis. In a given study, the unit of observation might be the same as the unit of analysis, but that is not always the case. Further, units of analysis are not required to be the same as units of observation. What is required, however, is for researchers to be clear about how they define their units of analysis and observation, both to themselves and to their audiences. More specifically, your unit of analysis will be determined by your research question. Your unit of observation, on the other hand, is determined largely by the method of data collection that you use to answer that research question.

To demonstrate these differences, let us look at the topic of students’ addictions to their cell phones. We will consider first how different kinds of research questions about this topic will yield different units of analysis. Then we will think about how those questions might be answered and with what kinds of data. This leads us to a variety of units of observation.

If I were to ask, “Which students are most likely to be addicted to their cell phones?” our unit of analysis would be the individual. We might mail a survey to students on a university or college campus, with the aim to classify individuals according to their membership in certain social classes and, in turn, to see how membership in those classes correlates with addiction to cell phones. For example, we might find that students studying media, males, and students with high socioeconomic status are all more likely than other students to become addicted to their cell phones. Alternatively, we could ask, “How do students’ cell phone addictions differ and how are they similar? In this case, we could conduct observations of addicted students and record when, where, why, and how they use their cell phones. In both cases, one using a survey and the other using observations, data are collected from individual students. Thus, the unit of observation in both examples is the individual. But the units of analysis differ in the two studies. In the first one, our aim is to describe the characteristics of individuals. We may then make generalizations about the populations to which these individuals belong, but our unit of analysis is still the individual. In the second study, we will observe individuals in order to describe some social phenomenon, in this case, types of cell phone addictions. Consequently, our unit of analysis would be the social phenomenon.

Another common unit of analysis in sociological inquiry is groups. Groups, of course, vary in size, and almost no group is too small or too large to be of interest to sociologists. Families, friendship groups, and street gangs make up some of the more common micro-level groups examined by sociologists. Employees in an organization, professionals in a particular domain (e.g., chefs, lawyers, sociologists), and members of clubs (e.g., Girl Guides, Rotary, Red Hat Society) are all meso-level groups that sociologists might study. Finally, at the macro level, sociologists sometimes examine citizens of entire nations or residents of different continents or other regions.

A study of student addictions to their cell phones at the group level might consider whether certain types of social clubs have more or fewer cell phone-addicted members than other sorts of clubs. Perhaps we would find that clubs that emphasize physical fitness, such as the rugby club and the scuba club, have fewer cell phone-addicted members than clubs that emphasize cerebral activity, such as the chess club and the sociology club. Our unit of analysis in this example is groups. If we had instead asked whether people who join cerebral clubs are more likely to be cell phone-addicted than those who join social clubs, then our unit of analysis would have been individuals. In either case, however, our unit of observation would be individuals.

Organizations are yet another potential unit of analysis that social scientists might wish to say something about. Organizations include entities like corporations, colleges and universities, and even night clubs. At the organization level, a study of students’ cell phone addictions might ask, “How do different colleges address the problem of cell phone addiction?” In this case, our interest lies not in the experience of individual students but instead in the campus-to-campus differences in confronting cell phone addictions. A researcher conducting a study of this type might examine schools’ written policies and procedures, so his unit of observation would be documents. However, because he ultimately wishes to describe differences across campuses, the college would be his unit of analysis.

Social phenomena are also a potential unit of analysis. Many sociologists study a variety of social interactions and social problems that fall under this category. Examples include social problems like murder or rape; interactions such as counselling sessions, Facebook chatting, or wrestling; and other social phenomena such as voting and even cell phone use or misuse. A researcher interested in students’ cell phone addictions could ask, “What are the various types of cell phone addictions that exist among students?” Perhaps the researcher will discover that some addictions are primarily centred on social media such as chat rooms, Facebook, or texting, while other addictions centre on single-player games that discourage interaction with others. The resultant typology of cell phone addictions would tell us something about the social phenomenon (unit of analysis) being studied. As in several of the preceding examples, however, the unit of observation would likely be individual people.

Finally, a number of social scientists examine policies and principles, the last type of unit of analysis we will consider here. Studies that analyze policies and principles typically rely on documents as the unit of observation. Perhaps a researcher has been hired by a college to help it write an effective policy against cell phone use in the classroom. In this case, the researcher might gather all previously written policies from campuses all over the country, and compare policies at campuses where the use of cell phones in classroom is low to policies at campuses where the use of cell phones in the classroom is high.

In sum, there are many potential units of analysis that a sociologist might examine, but some of the most common units include the following:

  1. Individuals
  2. Groups
  3. Organizations
  4. Social phenomena.
  5. Policies and principles.

Table 4.1 Units of analysis and units of observation: A hypothetical study of students’ addictions to cell phones.

Research Question Unit of Analysis Data Collection Unit of Observation Statements of Findings
Which students are most likely to be addicted to their cell phones? Individuals Survey of students on campus. Individuals Media majors, men, and students with high socioeconomic status are all more likely than other students to become addicted to their cell phones.
Do certain types of social clubs have more cell phone -addicted members than other sorts of clubs? Group Survey of students on campus. Individuals Clubs with a scholarly focus have more cell phone-addicted members than more socially focused clubs.
How do different colleges address the problem of addiction to cell phones? Organizations Content analysis of policies. Documents Campuses without policies prohibiting cell phone use in the classroom have high levels of cell phone addiction.
What are the various types of cell phone addictions? Social phenomena Observations of students Individual There are two main types of cell phone addictions: social and antisocial.
What are the most effective policies against cell phone addiction? Policies and principles Content analysis of policies and student records. Documents Policies that require students with cell phone addictions to attend group counselling for a minimum of one semester have been found to treat addictions more effectively than those that call for expulsion of addicted students.