Social scientists want to understand the behavior of individuals and how this behavior is affected by membership in social groups. Many of the methodologies we have discussed in earlier chapters (for instance, survey research, experimentation, participant observation) are used to examine peoples' attitudes, beliefs, and values. If we want to discover why people vote as they do, exhibit prejudice, or engage in criminal behavior, we often proceed by interviewing or observing an appropriate sample of individuals. We try to show the distinctive characteristics of people who engage in these behaviors by taking individuals as the units of analysis, that is, the source of the data from which we are able to make generalizations.
However, individuals are not always the focus of social research. We may want to understand the nature, character, and dynamics of social structures, as well. We frequently wish to compare institutions according to some attribute. Social scientists sometimes take as their unit of analysis such organizations as universities, business corporations, prisons, or hospitals. As we will see, much investigation is also concerned with geographical, or areal groupings, of people. We might be interested in comparing rates of suicide in various countries. Although it is true that individuals are responsible for taking their own lives, the focus of our research need not be on the particular or separate motives, beliefs, or personal life conditions of these individuals.