R for statistical analysis in Political and Social Sciences - Basic Notes


For any search related to R it is important to first take a look at the main page of the R-project http://www.r-project.org/. This is the main place to start looking for any documentation and help.

There is an important section in this project website: CRAN (Comprehensive R Archive Network). This is the place from where it is possible to get the source code of the program and the extensions available as packages. From there it is important to select a mirror near you.

R documentation is excellent. Once in the program, in front of the command line, some options are available:

> ?command                         # opens the help page of the concrete 'command'

help.search(“text-to-find”) # Will look for all commands that have some # strings related with “text-to-find”

RSiteSearch(“text”) # Open a browser and searches inside all R # related sites for that concrete text

Nevertheless, if we are not able to solve our doubt, there are also at least three more places to look for:

  • Project documentation: An Introduction to R. The most basic manual. Has a very good section with a simple sample session.
  • External documentation related to the project: "Contributed Docs". Generally speaking those are extensive documents that cover different aspects of R, in different languages. I specially recommend "R for beginners", by Emmanuel Paradis.
  • "R-help" mailing list archives. It allows to search for keywords and sentences amongst the huge amount of help and information generated in the R-help mailing list.
  • Saint-Google. Nothing can stop it.
  • Rweb Tutorial. Allows a guided course to learn the basics of R.

In addition to that:

Recommended packages

Useful complementary tools

R console is not sometimes the most useful tool to work with it. The easiest solution is to work with a text editor, and copy and paste the commands, and so keep also a record of our syntax. However, this is not the "best" solution. There are two different applications that work parallel to R in order to facilitate its use: Emacs/XEmacs and Tinn-R.

Emacs / XEmacs i ESS

Very powerful text editors (emacs and XEmacs) that, along with ESS (Emacs Speaks Statistics) allow interaction with R and lots of other languages (stata amongst them).


Tinn-R Colorizes the syntax and allows to send it to R and lots of other useful stuff. Only available under Microsoft Windows (having Vim, Emacs, ESS, ... who needs it in the *NIX world?)


RStudio is a powerful integrated development environment for R.

Reference card (basic)

Reference card (pdf) of the most used commands.

Example scripts commented

Why you should use R?

Last, but not least, why should I use R if my university pays a licence of SPSS/Stata/other-program?

Without being exhaustive, here you have some arguments for using R for research and teaching in the social sciences:

Practical arguments

  • R is a programming language in itself. It is based in S-PLUS, a language with an important historical tradition. Being a complete programming language increases the possibilities of things that you can do with it. You can order pizza from within R....
  • R is a very well documented project.
  • It exists an increasing amount of packages adapted for very concrete tasks. You don't have to reinvent the wheel again.
  • You can take a look at its source code. We can know, at each moment, what every function is doing and, hence, adapt it to our needs.
  • R is a good friend of everybody. It offers different tools to export and import data, matrices, plots, tables, etc... and the majority of open formats and some of the proprietary ones.

More arguments at Why use R?.

And a list of the signals that are sent when one chooses a software for data analysis: Statistics Softwrare Signal.

Ethical arguments

Apart from being a useful took, it is also a good tool.

  • It is Free software (free as in freedom, not as in free beer!)
  • The needs that are being covered are the needs of the community of users.
  • We can show it in the lectures and use it for teaching purposes, knowing that students will be able to use it as well at home. If we teach using SPSS / Stata students have to work on the university computers or purchase a licence in order to pass the course (what do we say if we make it compulsory to use a Montblanc pen?), or we induce them not to respect licences.
  • <li>We don't have to teach students to be consumers of a concrete product, but to do things in different ways and with different programs. In fact, we are "producing" students, not consumers of a privative software.</li>
    <li>We are a public university. If there are programs that do the same tasks as others and are free (as in freedom), and most of them free (as in free beer), it is a social compromise to spend money in those who are not free (in both ways)?</li>

Command line? But if we are in the mouse era!

There are also some reasons to prefer to work with the spartan R command line instead of doing in a mega-ultra-fancy interface that does everything with clicks.... (and without thinking at all)

  • Only for having to work with code students get some habits: they should "think" and design the process, instead of just "do something". Usually, "do something" is synonym for clicking buttons to generate as many output as possible without knowing what he/she is actually doing.
  • <li>Given that we are in the university to do science, it is absolutely mandatory to be able to reproduce the results that we have obtained. This is <b>only</b> possible if we do use syntax and code. And, if we have to use code, let's use it in a program that is designed to work this way, has an elegant syntax and is a programming language in itself.</li>

However, if you prefer to work with a graphical user interface, R has currently different packages to work with:

‘Ramón y Cajal’ Fellow

Tailoring social science research methods