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Home arrow Environment arrow Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches


One of the very first things to do in any research project is decide on the unit of analysis. In a case study, there is exactly one unit of analysis—the village, the school, the hospital, the organization. Research designed to test hypotheses requires a sample of units of analysis from a population. How many? That depends on several things, which we’ll get to in chapter 6 on sampling theory and in chapter 16 on cultural domain analysis. Here’s a hint, though: Good research samples can be much smaller than you might think (peek at table 16.13).

Although most research in social science is about populations of people, many other things can be the units of analysis. You can focus on farms instead of farmers, or on unions instead of union members, or on wars instead of warriors. You can study marriage contracts; folk tales, songs, and myths; and countries, cultures, and cities.

Paul Doughty (1979), for example, surveyed demographic data on 134 countries to make a list of ‘‘primate cities.’’ Geographers say that a country has a primate city if its most populous city is at least twice the size of its second-most populous city (Jefferson 1939). Doughty, an anthropologist who had worked in Peru, looked at the population of the three largest cities in each country and coded whether the largest city was at least three times greater than the second and third cities combined. He discovered that this extreme form of population concentration was associated with Latin America more than with any other region of the world at the time.

Holly Mathews (1987, 1992) did a study of how men and women in a Mexican village tell a famous folk tale differently. The tale is called La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) and is known all over Mexico. Mathews’s research has to do with the problem of intracultural variation—different people telling the same story in different ways. She studied a sample of the population of La Llorona stories in a community where she was working. Each story, as told by a different person, had characteristics that could be compared across the sample of stories. One of the characteristics was whether the story was told by a man or by a woman, and this turned out to be the most important variable associated with the stories, which were the units of analysis. (See the section on schema analysis in chapter 19 for more about Mathews’s study of the La Llorona tales.)

You can have more than one unit of analysis in a study. When Mathews looked for similarities and differences in tellings of the story, then the stories were the units of analysis. But when she looked at patterns in the tellers of the stories, then people were her units of analysis.

Robert Aunger (2004:145-62) asked 424 people in four ethnic groups (Sudanic, Efe, Bantu, and Tswa) in the Ituri Forest (Democratic Republic of Congo) about food taboos. For each of 145 animals, Aunger asked each informant if it was edible, and, if so, if there were any times when it should not be eaten. For example, some animals were said to be off limits to pregnant women or to children; some animals required permission from an elder to eat; some animals should not be eaten by members of this or that clan; and so on. When Aunger analyzes looks at which animals have similar patterns of avoidance, the 145 animals are the units of analysis. But when he looks at differences in food taboos across people—like patterns of food taboos in the four ethnic groups—then people are the units of analysis.

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