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Levels of Analysis

When we analyse something we essentially take it apart and look at the parts.  

Again, we can compare this to your car.  One level of analysis would entail looking at the car as a whole.  What has to be there to make it a car, how do we know that this is a car… why is a car without a fender still a car, even though a fender is not a car… Well!  That’s obvious, the fender can’t do what a car does, it seems obvious to us that a fender is not a car and a car can have a fender or not and still be a car.  Duh!

We have learned what constitutes a whole thing, and what constitutes parts of a thing.  Most of us got over confusing the two when we were very young and might wonder why we’d want to confuse ourselves now with something that is already settled.

The answer lies in something called operationalizing the question.  If we are to study anything in a scientific manner we need to be able to state what it is that we will study.  We need to know where our study will begin and where it will end.  We need to know which questions we need or really want the answers to now and which can wait for another day or someone who cares about them more than we do. 

When we operationalize the concepts for our questions we essentially set limits on how much of the concept we will study in order to arrive at an answer to our question that we will be happy with.  Typically there are many limits, one of them is the level of analysis that we’ll use.

Intro textbooks talk about “micro” and “macro” sociology.  What they mean is that two common levels of analysis are th small scale “micro” analysis as opposed to the large scale “macro” analysis.  But what does it mean to be small scale or large scale?  Simply micro analysis is concerned with studying interactions between people as individuals who are watching or listening or otherwise attending to each other for clues as to what the other is thinking or doing.  Why would they do this… well simply so they can make a reasonably accurate guess as to what the other will do next so that they are prepared to deal with it; and of course so that they can respond to whatever the person does, whether it was expected or not.

So lets imagine that you are walking through a hall and you see someone you know.  What do you do?  Probably you greet them.  How do you greet them?  Hmmm.  Depends.  If they look like they always look you greet them as you always do, if they look ‘somehow’ different you have to decide whether to greet them as usual or adjust your greeting.   This is a micro analysis.  Notice how it is concerned with direct interaction, more importantly notice that it is not concerned with what the greeting is but how individuals decide what greeting to use.

Macro analysis of greetings would be on a much larger scale.  For example we might notice what the common greetings are, knowing that sometimes people would deviate and use different greetings.  On the macro level we are interested in patterns of interactions in general or in the outcomes of lots of micro interactions (which is what the common greetings are … lots of individual greetings, viewed on a large scale show that some greetings are used more).

A macro analysis can tell you what groups say hello, hi, ola or hey when they answer the phone.  That macro analysis can’t tell you how people inside of those groups decide which to use in any given situation.  And no analanyyis can tell us with 100% certainty what greeting any one person will choose on a given occasion.  The best they can do is tell you what is the likely greeting for certain groups of people in certain kinds of situations. 

Next:  Why I’m not a reductionist

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