One of the first decisions in any social science research is the unit of analysis of a scientific study. The unit of analysis refers to the person, collective, or object that is the target of the investigation. Typical unit of analysis include individuals, groups, organizations, countries, technologies, objects, and such. For instance, if we are interested in studying people’s shopping behavior, their learning outcomes, or their attitudes to new technologies, then the unit of analysis is the individual. If we want to study characteristics of street gangs or teamwork in organizations, then the unit of analysis is the group. If the goal of research is to understand how firms can improve profitability or make good executive decisions, then the unit of analysis is the firm. In this case, even though decisions are made by individuals in these firms, these individuals are presumed to represent their firm’s decision rather than their personal decisions.
If research is directed at understanding differences in national cultures, then the unit of analysis becomes a country. Even inanimate objects can serve as units of analysis. For instance, if a researcher is interested in understanding how to make web pages more attractive to its users, then the unit of analysis is a web page (and not users). If we wish to study how knowledge transfer occurs between two firms, then our unit of analysis becomes the dyad (the combination of firms that is sending and receiving knowledge).
Understanding the units of analysis can sometimes be fairly complex. For instance, if we wish to study why certain neighborhoods have high crime rates, then our unit of analysis becomes the neighborhood, and not crimes or criminals committing such crimes. This is because the object of our inquiry is the neighborhood and not criminals. However, if we wish to compare different types of crimes in different neighborhoods, such as homicide, robbery, assault, and so forth, our unit of analysis becomes the crime. If we wish to study why criminals engage in illegal activities, then the unit of analysis becomes the individual (i.e., the criminal). Like, if we want to study why some innovations are more successful than others, then our unit of analysis is an innovation. However, if we wish to study how some organizations innovate more consistently than others, then the unit of analysis is the organization. Hence, two related research questions within the same research study may have two entirely different units of analysis.
Understanding the unit of analysis is important because it shapes what type of data you should collect for your study and who you collect it from. If your unit of analysis is a web page, you should be collecting data about web pages from actual web pages, and not surveying people about how they use web pages. If your unit of analysis is the organization, then you should be measuring organizational-level variables such as organizational size, revenues, hierarchy, or absorptive capacity. This data may come from a variety of sources such as financial records or surveys of Chief Executive Officers (CEO), who are presumed to be representing their organization (rather than themselves). Some variables such as CEO pay may seem like individual level variables, but in fact, it can also be an organizational level variable because each organization has only one CEO pay at any time. Sometimes, it is possible to collect data from a lower level of analysis and aggregate that data to a higher level of analysis. For instance, in order to study teamwork in organizations, you can survey individual team members in different organizational teams, and average their individual scores to create a composite team-level score for team-level variables like cohesion and conflict. We will examine the notion of “variables” in greater depth in the next section.
Source: Bhattacherjee, Anol, “Social Science Research: Principles, Methods, and Practices” (2012). Textbooks Collection. Book 3.