Unit of Analysis

A unit (of analysis) is the smallest part of a complex whole which possesses all the essential properties of the whole and forms a starting point for reconstruction of the process in theory.


The concept of Unit of Analysis in CHAT was first elaborated by Vygotsky in Chapter 1 of “Thinking and Speech,” (1934) by bringing together the concept of ‘unit of analysis’ used in mainstream social science with the concept from the dialectical tradition variously called the “Urphänomen” (Goethe 1795), the “abstract concept” (Hegel 1812) or “the cell” (Marx 1867 - mentioned by Vygotsky in 1929). In mainstream social science the term was used without any consideration for the relation between the unit and the whole. (See the Wikipedia for an illustration of this conception). In the dialectical tradition, however, the unit of analysis is the simplest unit which can be observed which exhibits the properties which constitute the process as a whole – that is, there is a reciprocal relationship between whole and unit.

The dialectical tradition originated with Goethe’s studies in morphology for which the Urphänomen was the simple, empirically-given instance of the whole organism and its development which held the key to the whole development and which alone allowed the whole to be scientifically grasped as a Gestalt.

Hegel appropriated Goethe’s idea, setting it upon a sound philosophical foundation and making it the key part of his Logic. The Abstract Concept (or Notion) is the unity of two processes: the process of accumulation of data (Being) and the process of critiquing the existing concepts through which the data has been apprehended (Essence) and which arrives at a new abstract concept which captures what is essential in the data, and through which it can be grasped as a Gestalt. Starting from the abstract concept, the phenomenon can then be reconstructed through the further concretisation in a developed theory and practice.

It was this idea of a two-fold movement of science which was described by Marx in his famous passage about “rising from the abstract to the concrete” in “The Method of Political Economy” (1857), and led to his claim in the First Preface to Capital, that “in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour – or value-form of the commodity – is the economic cell-form,” (Marx 1867). Marx went on to elaborate all the economic phenomena of bourgeois society by means of a critical analysis of the commodity form. When Vygotsky said:

“In order to create such intermediate theories – methodologies, general sciences – we must reveal the essence of the given area of phenomena, the laws of their change, their qualitative and quantitative characteristics, their causality, we must create categories and concepts appropriate to it, in short, we must create our own Das Kapital,” (1929)

he foreshadowed the appropriation of this method in Psychology.


The unit of analysis provides an 'entry point' for scientific work. It is the effort to grasp a process holistically in this way which Vygotsky expressed with idea of ‘units’ as opposed to ‘elements’. Vygotsky arrived at a unit of analysis through dialectical criticism of the basic concepts of each sphere of research he approached.

The idea of a ‘unit of analysis’ is closely related to the idea of the ‘germ cell’ used to encapsulate contradictions inherent in the basic concepts of a study and for organising and studying the process of problem-solving and concept formation in science.

1. Vygotsky (1934) approached the concept of a Unit of Analysis by contrasting units with elements. Elements are the heterogeneous components which have to be brought together to make the composite whole, such as the example of Hydrogen and Oxygen as the elements of water. But Hydrogen and Oxygen both exhibit radically different properties from H2O. It is the molecule, H2O, which must be the unit of analysis from which the ordinary physical properties of water may be explained.

2. The unit of analysis is a methodological concept, not an ontological concept: the selection of the unit of analysis is relative to the problem (or contradiction) which the researcher wants to resolve. In that sense, the unit of analysis is a succinct expression of the problem itself. In “Thinking and Speech” Vygotsky says “the central problem is that of the relationship of thought to word,” (1934, p. 43) and his unit of analysis (word meaning) reflected that problematic.

3. The unit of analysis is an empirically-given phenomenon, not some theoretical or mental entity. So mental entities, such as ‘ideas’, or theoretical or hypothetical entities such as ‘force’, cannot be units of analysis.

4. A unit is itself a whole, that is, it is discrete not a continuum, and in the English language is always expressed by a countable noun (carrying a definite or indefinite article or demonstrative, “a unit” or “this unit,” etc., and has a plural, “units”) rather than a mass noun. Because the Russian language does not use articles, translators sometimes omit the article when translating from Russian into English, for example, translating perezhivanie as “experience.” But while “experiences” may be units, “experience” cannot.

5. Generally speaking, because the unit of analysis captures the contradiction at the root of the development of a complex organism or process, it is itself a unity of opposite. So for example, word meaning (the unit of verbal thinking or the intellect) is both subjective and objective. As Vygotsky put it:

“The word is comparable to the living cell in that it is a unit of sound and meaning that contains - in simple form – all the basic characteristics of the integral phenomenon of verbal thinking” (1934, p. 46)

Sound is objective and apprehended by the senses; “meaning” is subjective. But “word meaning” remains an empirically given action, even though the Inner aspect of the word has to be reconstructed from observation of the action, its development and its context.

6. By characterising the process as a whole, that is, as a Gestalt, the unit requires the investigator to reconceptualise the whole, now in terms of the unit, even though at first, the whole was approached as a phenomenon, characterised by some common feature, which analysis proves to be inessential. So for example, Marx’s analysis of bourgeois society did not reveal the nature of the family or the state, since these aspects of ‘bourgeois society’ turned out to be inessential, even though they are dominated by the relations of the market, which were essential. ‘Word meaning’, then, is not going to reveal the development of attention or will; it is essential however to understanding the Intellect. However, it turns out that by solving the problem of the relation of thinking and speech, word meaning sheds new light on Attention, Affect, etc., but it is not thereby a unit of Attention, Affect, etc.. In order to build up a concrete science of the human psyche, of consciousness, it will be necessary to discover very many units of analysis, which each encapsulate an aspect of the development of human life, and only by the bringing together of all those insights can a concrete psychology be created - not just with one unit of analysis.

7. The unit of analysis may, in some cases, be far from typical of the complex whole. For example, Marx took the commodity as the unit of modern bourgeois societies, despite that fact that in modern capitalist societies people hardly ever actually exchange commodities; buying and selling is the norm. Taking the commodity as a unit of analysis meant taking money to be a special form of commodity, but one in which the nature of the commodity is mystified. Likewise, although Vygotsky has in mind the spoken word in the unit of analysis, ‘verbal thinking’ is normally silent and differs in structure from the spoken word. However, verbal thought is genetically connected to the spoken word from which it develops.

8. Likewise, the unit of analysis is not a microcosm. A microcosm may be small (micro), but it is not simple, but rather must be an exemplar of the highest level of development in order to manifest all the phenomena of the macrocosm. A microcosm bears a different relation to the whole than does the unit: the unit and the Gestalt mutually determine each other. On the other hand, the microcosm is the highest product of the macrocosm and does not constitute the macrocosm.

9. ‘Unit of analysis’ is often spoken of in the sense of being the ‘major entity being studied’ (see the Wikipedia entry), and is thus taken as a self-sufficient whole in itself. On the contrary, ‘unit of analysis’ is only meaningful when the complex process in question manifests a vast number of combinations and interactions of the units of analysis. There is no reason to suppose that an instance of the ‘unit of analysis’ could exist and be understood as a self-standing whole, independent of the complex whole of which it is a unit. ‘Unit of analysis’ is not CHAT jargon for the ‘subject matter’.

10. Vygotsky praised Pavlov for identifying the conditioned reflex as the unit of analysis for understanding animal behaviour (1929), but condemned the Reflexologists because they simply worked on the principle that “everything is a reflex.” (1925) Speech, for example, the reflexologists simply named the “speech reflex.” This concept is that of the Substance (Stanford 2004) of the science, not its unit of analysis. In general, the Substance is taken as given by the science and does not yield any scientific insight. To say everything is Matter, for example, does not yield a materialist methodology. On the contrary. A unit of analysis presupposes a precise and empirically verifiable concept of the entity which functions as the unit.

11. Where the unit of analysis is constituted as a unity of opposites, this means that the opposites have their own independent existence and paths of development, the unit arising in those circumstances where these two processes intersect. The dynamics of the unit cannot be revealed until the independent dynamics of the processes being united are grasped. So, for example, “In the initial stages of child development, we can clearly identify a pre-intellectual stage in the formation of speech and a pre-speech stage in the development of thinking.” (1934, p. 112) This is something more than can be revealed simply by conceptual analysis of the inner and outer aspects of word meaning.

12. Vygotsky’s approach (like that of Goethe, Hegel and Marx before him) is a genetic or developmental approach. The unit of analysis reveals not just the structure or composition of a complex whole, but the logic of its development. That is why there is always a tension between the opposites united in the unit of analysis; meaning is not an attribute of the sound of the word, but has its own origins and development – word and meaning may at times even be in contradiction with one another.


Goethe, J. W. v. (1795). Excerpts from Goethe on Science. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/goethe.htm

Hegel, G. W. F. (1812). The Concept in General, in Science of Logic, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hl/hlnotion.htm#HL3_577

Marx, K. (1857). “The Method of Political Economy,” The Grundrisse http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm#3

Marx, K. (1867). Preface to the First German Edition of Capital http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p1.htm

Stanford (2004) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Substance. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/substance/

Vygotsky, L. S. (1925). The Methods of Reflexological and Psychological Investigation, LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 35–49. http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/1925/reflexology.htm

Vygotsky, L. S. (1929a). Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, chapter 1, LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 233–246. http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/crisis/psycri01.htm

Vygotsky, L. S. (1929). Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, chapter 13, LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 310–332. http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/crisis/psycri13.htm

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). The Problem and the Approach, Chapter 1 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 43–51. http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/ch01.htm

Wikipedia “Unit of Analysis” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_of_analysis

-- AndyBlunden - 12 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r43 - 28 Jan 2015, AndyBlunden

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