Level of analysis

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The term "level of analysis" is used in the social sciences to point to the location, size, or scale of a research target. "Level of analysis" is distinct from the term "unit of observation" in that the former refers to a more or less integrated set of relationships while the latter refers to the distinct unit from which data have been or will be gathered. Together, the unit of observation and the level of analysis help define the population of a research enterprise.

"Level of analysis" in cognitive science[edit]

Marr's tri-level hypothesis[edit]

According to David Marr, information processing systems must be understood at three distinct yet complementary levels of analysis - an analysis at one level alone is not sufficient.[1][2]


The computational level of analysis identifies what the information processing system does (e.g.: what problems does it solve or overcome) and similarly, why does it do these things.


The algorithmic/representational level of analysis identifies how the information processing system performs its computations, specifically, what representations are used and what processes are employed to build and manipulate the representations.


The physical level of analysis identifies how the information processing system is physically realized (in the case of biological vision, what neural structures and neuronal activities implement the visual system).

Poggio's learning level[edit]

After thirty years of the book Vision (David Marr. 1982. W. H. Freeman and Company), Tomaso Poggio adds one higher level beyond the computational level, that is the learning.

I am not sure that Marr would agree, but I am tempted to add learning as the very top level of understanding, above the computational level. [...] Only then may we be able to build intelligent machines that could learn to see—and think—without the need to be programmed to do it.

— Tomaso Poggio, Vision (David Marr. 2010. The MIT Press), Afterword, P.367

"Level of analysis" in political science[edit]

In political science, level of analysis is generally divided into three categories - individual, state, and international system. Although, the three levels of analysis cannot describe every effect and there is unlimited number of levels between the three primary ones, levels of analysis will help understand how one force in political power affects another. Generally, power is the concept that collects all the analysis together. For example, the struggle for power may be the cause of war, but the struggle for power may originate in the individual human being's lust for power. The lust for power is individual level of analysis, while the struggle for power is systemic level of analysis.[3]

Individual level[edit]

The individual level of analysis locates the cause of events in individual leaders or the immediate circle of decision makers within a particular country. It focuses on human actors on the world stage identifying the characteristics of human decision making.[3][4] For example, the cause of World War I is from the particular leaders in power at that time. Kaiser Wilhelm II is considered to be the level from which the cause originated. It may have been his need for power to hide a sense of inferiority, or it may have been his inability to understand the intricacies of statecraft, the way Otto von Bismarck did. Or it may have been his idea about the monarchy and German destiny. All three possibilities are drawn from an individual level of analysis.[citation needed]

Domestic level[edit]

The domestic level of analysis locates causes in the character of the domestic system of specific states. Thus, war is caused by aggressive or warlike states, not by evil, inept, or misguided people or the structure of power in the international system. The failure of domestic institutions may also cause war.[3] In World War I, the internal collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the brittle coalition inside Germany of agricultural and industrial interest, such as rye and iron, are often cited as important causes. Domestic level cases may come from various characteristics of the domestic system. Capitalist and socialist economies generate different attitudes and behavior. The Muslim and Christian religions or democratic and nondemocratic political ideologies do as well. Stable and failed institutions are domestic level factors affecting state behavior. A great worry today is the existence of failed states, meaning states whose domestic institutions have broken down, such as Somalia. Another worry is here existence of a rogue state, such as North Korea, which may pass nuclear weapons on to terrorists. Any type of state come from the domestic level of analysis, but a failed state usually means an institutional breakdown at domestic level of analysis, whereas a rogue state often implies evil intentions by individual – individual level of analysis.

Systemic level[edit]

The systemic level of analysis explains outcomes from a system wide level that includes all states.[3] It takes into account both the position of states in the international system and their interrelationships. The position of states constitutes the systemic structural level of analysis. This involves the relative distribution of power, such as which state; great, middle, or small power, and geopolitics; such as which state is sea or land power. The interaction of states constitutes the systemic process level of analysis. At this level, we are concerned with which state aligns with which other states and which state negotiates with which other states. Thus, we can explain World War I in terms of the absence of system wide institutions, such as League of Nations, which was not created until after World War I to prevent such wars in the future. However, system wide institution does not always mean harmony among nations, as seen in the World War II. The cause of World War II is seen as the failure of a systemic institution, which led new institutions of the United Nations to carry on reformed legacy of the League of Nations.[5]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. Henry Holt. ISBN 0716715678. 
  2. ^ Marr, D.; Poggio, T. (1976). "From Understanding Computation to Understanding Neural Circuitry". Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. A.I. Memo. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. AIM-357. 
  3. ^ a b c d Henry R. Nau, Perspectives on International Relations (2012) 
  4. ^ John T. Rowrke. International Politics on the World Stage, 10th edition.
  5. ^ McGraw Hill. Introduction to International Business, 8th edition.

External links[edit]