Units of analysis are the objects of study within a research project. In sociology, the most common units of analysis are individuals, groups, social interactions, organizations and institutions, and social and cultural artifacts. In many cases, a research project can require multiple units of analysis.
Identifying your units of analysis is an important part of the research process. Once you have identified a research question, you will have to select your units of analysis as part of the process of deciding on a research method and how you will operationalize that method. Let’s review the most common units of analysis and why a researcher might choose to study them.
Individuals are the most common units of analysis within sociological research. This is the case because the core problem of sociology is understanding the relationships between individuals and society, so we routinely turn to studies composed of individual people in order to refine our understanding of the ties that bind individuals together into a society. Taken together, information about individuals and their personal experiences can reveal patterns and trends that are common to a society or particular groups within it, and can provide insight into social problems and their solutions. For example, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found through interviews with individual women who have had abortions that the vast majority of women do not ever regret the choice to terminate the pregnancy. Their findings prove that a common right-wing argument against access to abortion–that women will suffer undue emotional distress and regret if they have an abortion–is based on myth rather than fact.
Sociologists are keenly interested in social ties and relationships, which means that they often study groups of people, be they large or small. Groups can be anything from romantic couples to families, to people who fall into particular racial or gender categories, to friend groups, to whole generations of people (think Millennials and all the attention they get from social scientists). By studying groups sociologists can reveal how social structure and forces affect whole categories of people on the basis of race, class, or gender, for example. Sociologists have done this in pursuit of understanding a wide range of social phenomena and problems, like for example this study that proved that living in a racist place leads to Black people having worse health outcomes than white people; or this study that examined the gender gap across different nations to find out which are better or worse at advancing and protecting the rights of women and girls.
Organizations differ from groups in that they are considered more formal and, well, organized ways of collecting people together around specific goals and norms. Organizations take many forms, including corporations, religious congregations and whole systems like the Catholic Church, judicial systems, police departments, and social movements, for example. Social scientists who study organizations might be interested in, for example, how corporations like Apple, Amazon, and Walmart impact various aspects of social and economic life, like how we shop and what we shop for, and what work conditions have become normal and/or problematic within the U.S. labor market. Sociologists who study organizations might also be interested in comparing different examples of similar organizations to reveal the nuanced ways in which they operate, and the values and norms that shape those operations.
Sociologists know that we can learn a lot about our society and ourselves by studying the things that we create, which is why many of us cultural artifacts. Cultural artifacts are all the things that are created by humans, including the built environment, furniture, technological devices, clothing, art and music, advertising and language–the list is truly endless. Sociologists who study cultural artifacts might be interested in understanding what a new trend in clothing, art, or music reveals about the contemporary values and norms of the society that produces it and those who consume it, or they might be interested in understanding how advertising might impact norms and behavior, especially in terms of gender and sexuality, which has long been fertile ground for social science research.
Social interactions also take a wide variety of forms and can include anything from making eye contact with strangers in public, purchasing items in a store, conversations, engaging in activities together, to formalized interactions like weddings and divorces, hearings, or court cases. Sociologists who study social interactions might be interested in understanding how larger social structures and forces shape how we behave and interact on a daily basis, or how they shape traditions like Black Friday shopping or weddings. They might also be interested in understanding how social order is maintained. Research has shown that this is done in part by intentionally ignoring each other in crowded public spaces.