Within this approach to cluster analysis there are a number of different methods used to determine which clusters should be joined at each stage. The main methods are summarized below.

Nearest neighbour method (single linkage method)

In this method the distance between two clusters is defined to be the distance between the two closest members, or neighbours. This method is relatively simple but is often criticised because it doesn’t take account of cluster structure and can result in a problem called chaining whereby clusters end up being long and straggly. However, it is better than the other methods when the natural clusters are not spherical or elliptical in shape.

Furthest neighbour method (complete linkage method)

In this case the distance between two clusters is defined to be the maximum distance between members — i.e. the distance between the two subjects that are furthest apart. This method tends to produce compact clusters of similar size but, as for the nearest neighbour method, does not take account of cluster structure. It is also quite sensitive to outliers.

Average (between groups) linkage method (sometimes referred to as UPGMA)

The distance between two clusters is calculated as the average distance between all pairs of subjects in the two clusters. This is considered to be a fairly robust method.

Centroid method

Here the centroid (mean value for each variable) of each cluster is calculated and the distance between centroids is used. Clusters whose centroids are closest together are merged. This method is also fairly robust.

Ward’s method

In this method all possible pairs of clusters are combined and the sum of the squared distances within each cluster is calculated. This is then summed over all clusters. The combination that gives the lowest sum of squares is chosen. This method tends to produce clusters of approximately equal size, which is not always desirable. It is also quite sensitive to outliers. Despite this, it is one of the most popular methods, along with the average linkage method.