Experiments in Sociology

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There are two main types of experiments - experiments and experiments. Experiments are used by sociologists to test and to measure the strength of the relationship between two

Laboratory experiments

Laboratory experiments are the backbone of scientific discovery. They provide a environment where variables can be isolated and correlations between things can be discovered. Experiments are said to be objective and , full replication of experiments can be made in other laboratories. Laboratory experiments have been very successful in the natural sciences like chemistry and

Laboratory Experiments in Sociology
However, in sociology the laboratory experiment is rarely used. This is because it is seen as:

- variables can’t be controlled
- it is not right to put people in laboratories for a period of time just to measure the effects of certain variables.
Unnatural - people will not act in a false environment.

For an example of a laboratory experiment in social science - Bandura's theory of learnt agression - complete the exercise on page 129 of Sociology in Focus


Is aggression learnt behaviour?

Field Experiments

Field experiments are conducted in normal everyday situations. Unlike lab situations, the variables can’t be controlled and aren’t as exact, but they have proved to be more popular in sociology as they are seen as having ' ’ i.e. they are true to real life situations.

Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968
In a 1968 San Franciscan primary school, Rosenthal and Jacobson told teachers that a selection of students had achieved the highest scores in IQ tests and should be monitored as they were expected to display ‘unusual intellectual gains’ in the year ahead. Further tests showed that this random set of pupils did indeed show a great gain over an 18 month period. This study shows the powerful effects of and the self-fulfilling prophecy but is open to criticisms.

Sissons 1970
Sissons arranged for an to dress up in a suit and bowler hat and stand around Paddington station and ask directions from passers by. The actor then changed into labourers clothes and repeated the task. The reactions of the passers by were then recorded and showed that varied according to the social class (assumed) of the individual in front of them.

Rosenhan 1973
In 1973 David Rosenhan got some of his students to pretend to be schizophrenic and had them admitted to hospitals. Once in hospital he had told them to act and not ‘crazy in any way’. Interestingly they were all discharged (on average after 19 days) but with the schizophrenia ‘in remission’. At no time in their stay was the of their illness questioned.

Advantages of Field Experiments
They are less artificial than laboratory experiments involving people - their results may be more "valid" than lab experiments

Disadvantages of Field Experiments
1. Control
A major problem with field experiments is the inability to control all variables.
2. The Hawthorne effect
When people are aware they are taking part in an experiment or survey they may act because of this awareness. This is called the Effect because it was first recorded in a study of the Hawthorne Electricity Company in Chicago in the 1920's. The experiment was to determine the effect on worker productivity (ie how hard they worked) of variables such as light, , heating, the frequency of rest breaks etc. The only factor which appeared to have any effect on productivity however was the knowledge that the had that they were part of an experiment. Whatever variable was changed the workers worked harder because they knew they were being observed
3. Ethical Issues
It is debatable as to whether it is (morally) right to conduct experiments on human beings. For instance in Rosenthal and Jacobsen's experiment the teachers and the pupils were mislead and the opportunities of the students influenced.
Many sociological field experiments are relatively harmless however it is important for the researcher to get the of those being studied unless such knowledge would destroy the validity of the research.