What Should The Fundamental Unit of Analysis Be, And Why?

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/ews-verdict-underscores-that-judiciary-has-been-a-reluctant-supporter-of-caste-based-reservation-8255165/ (Highlight added)

As you might imagine, I’ve been asked about the EWS judgment in class during random question time. And it is something that I’ve been thinking about myself, naturally.

But I have been thinking about a very basic question, and I haven’t yet landed upon an answer that satisfies me. This post is more a request for help, suggestions and reading material, and I do hope some of you end up helping me!


When we’re analyzing something – it could be reservations (affirmative action) or something else altogether – what should we choose as our unit of analysis? Should it be the individual or the group? Whatever one’s answer, why? What are you optimizing for when you choose your answer?

More: say you choose to change your unit of analysis, either while analyzing the same problem, or a related one. Say it is the hijab ban controversy. Or maybe the question of banning beef. Or the Sabarimala issue. Or pick any issue of your choice in any country of your choice – I’m not interested in what your (or my!) opinion is on any of these controversies. I’m interested in what our choice of unit of analysis is, and why. I’m also interested in whether we are tempted to change our unit of analysis depending upon the context, and if yes, on what basis.

I’ve spoken about this with some folks privately, and the best answer I’ve gotten so far is that of “agency”. I’m paraphrasing the argument here, but in effect, one should use an individual as the unit of analysis if that individual has agency – that is, the power to bring about meaningful change in their own circumstances. In the case of the hijab controversy, for example, this line of thinking would imply that we should be leaving the choice to wear (or not wear) the hijab to the individual in question.

Whereas in the case of reservations, it should be the group that is the unit of analysis, because you can’t change your caste, and societal structures impose costs on you for belonging to a particular caste. No agency, therefore the unit of analysis should be a group.

This argument seemed appealing to me when I first heard it, but the more I think about, the more I ask myself if the hijab example really is a good example of agency. You may agree or disagree with me when I say this, but I would argue that girls don’t necessarily have agency in this case. Whether it is rules or laws or norms, they take away this agency no? Again, this isn’t about what is “right” in the case of the hijab controversy – it is an important question, but not the one I’m trying to get at here.

This is, by the way, an important question to ask in economics, with many implications for how research is conducted and policy is designed and implemented. But the importance of this question is much more than that, with implications for fields as diverse as management, sociology, politics and more.

I’m hoping to learn more about how to think about this and why, so please do let me know what you think!