Sociologists do not often use laboratories for experiments, but it is important that you do know when and for what they are used, even if only on occasion in sociology.
There are three different Experimental Methods that sociologists sometimes use in their research and they are:
The Comparative Method
What is our Learning Objective? In Topic 3 we will examine and understand the different forms of experiment and their strengths and limitations as ways of investigating the social world.
1) Lab Experiments: Plants Example
Need a set of identical plants & randomly divide them into two groups—
An experimental group
A control group
Lab Experiments: Treatment of Groups
We treat them differently by:
Experimental group gets varied quantities of nutrients and we carefully measure and record any changes to growth and appearance that we observe.
Control group get a constant quantity of nutrients, and we still measure any changes to growth and appearance we observe.
Lab Experiments: Findings & Conclusions
Upon Comparing Results:
Experimental plants grew faster than control group
That we have discovered a cause and effect relationship: nutrients cause growth.
The Science Side of it:
Nutrients is the independent variable (the causal factor) and the result of the growth is the dependant variable (dependant since it happens only due to the first variable's presence, nutrition).
Lab Experiments: Logic & the Experimental Method
Scientist manipulates (alters) the variables in which they are interested in order to discover what effect they have.
By doing this, the scientist can establish a cause and effect relationship .
This also allows the scientist to correctly predict in future experiments under specified conditions.
Example: So, in our plant experiment, we can predict what will happen when a certain quantity of nutrient is given to the plants.
Lab Experiments: Reliability (Repeatability)
Yes, we have discussed this term before!
The idea is, that once an experiment has been conducted, other scientists can then replicate it, or put another way, repeat it exactly in every detail .
Thus, lab experiments are highly reliable producing the same result each time for two reasons.
Why are Lab Experiments Highly Reliable?
Original experimenter can specify precisely what steps were followed in the original experiment so others can repeat it and get the same outcome.
Highly detached method: researcher merely manipulates the variables and records the results. Feelings and opinions have no bearing on the outcome of the experiment.
Thus, lab experiments have MAJOR advantages as the methods used to identify cause and effect relationships in hard sciences.
Lab Experiments: Its Relationship with Sociology?
So, given the prior, we might expect Positivist Sociologists to use lab experiments, since they prefer the scientific approach, right?
Nope. Despite this, there are multiple reasons why such experiments are rarely used in sociology even by positivists.
We will look at a few of the positivist arguments regarding their non use of lab experiments.
Lab Experiments: Positivism
We all know by now that positivists like the idea of lab experiments in principle as it meets their goal of reliability .
Careful control over experimental conditions and experimenter detachment produce reliable data that others can replicate .
Researcher can identify and measure behaviour patterns quantitatively and manipulate variable to establish cause and effect relationship.
Lab Experiments: Positivism
It is often impossible or unethical to control the variables.
Their small scale means that results may not be representative or generalisable.
Due to the above, positivists sometimes prefer to use the comparative method instead.
Lab Experiments: Interpretivists
Outright reject the lab experimental method saying it fails to achieve their main goal of validity .
Claim it is an artificial situation producing unnatural behaviour.
Prefer more natural methods, such as field experiments.
Positivists criticise Interpretivists saying it goes too far reducing control over variable.
This concludes Lab Experiments & Reliability
Up Next… Lab Experiments: Practical Problems
Lab Experiments: Practical Problems
Society is a complex machine; in practice it would be virtually impossible to identify or control all the variables that affect our attitudes toward marriage, women's role in the workplace or our feelings about homosexuality.
Lab experiments cannot study the past either since by definition of the time having already passed, we cannot control the variables since that time has come and gone.
The above outlines only briefly the practical problem of attempting to apply lab methods to society.
Typically lab exp. Only study small scale-- reduces representativeness.
Lab Experiments: Ethical Problems
There are ethical (moral) objections to doing experiments on humans, under certain, but not all circumstances .
So, as a general rule, researchers need informed consent of the participants.
Difficult to get informed consent with specific groups such as children or learning difficulties individuals , who may not be able to understand the nature and purpose of the experiment.
Stanley Milgram (1974)
Generally, it is considered wrong to mislead people as to the nature of a study.
S. Milgram did lie to his participants in his studies of obedience to authority.
Told participants they were assisting in an experiment on learning.
They were instructed by the researcher to administer electric shocks when the learner failed to answer questions correctly.
Milgrams Real Study
He was looking at the participant's willingness to follow orders to inflict pain.
Not real shocks-- but the participants were not aware of this.
65% of participants were willing to administer 450 volt shocks to the learners.