The advantages and disadvantages of field experiments in sociology

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The advantages and disadvantages of field experiments in sociology
Humans are more complex experimental subjects than plants or animals. (Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Sociology is the study of human relationships and institutions. It investigates a wide range of topics, from romantic love and family conflict at the personal level, to crime, poverty, prejudice, business and education at the societal level. Many of its research insights come from observation and interviewing, but sociology researchers have conducted some famous experiments, both in controlled environments (laboratory experiments) and in the field.

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The Hawthorne Effect

An important element of scientific experiments, even in the social sciences, is that all variables should be controlled except the variable whose impact you are trying to assess. When you do see a change in behaviour when a variable has been changed, you can reasonably infer that the behaviour change has been caused by the change in the environment. However, you cannot get rid of the social influence of the research process itself. This effect is known as the Hawthorne Effect as it was discovered by the social psychologist EIton Mayo at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company in 1925.

Ethics

Some of the major considerations of conducting field research in sociology concern ethics. For example, if participants are aware that they are part of an experiment then this could lead to the Hawthorne Effect as they alter their behaviour because they know they are being observed. However, not to tell them that they are part of an experiment is unethical. There are also some experiments that are unethical in nature, such as a 1968 investigation in a San Franciscan primary school which led to a random selection of pupils benefiting academically as a direct result of the experiment, while the control group did not.

Control

A major problem for field experiments is that it is impossible for the researcher to control all the possible independent variables. They are also less replicable than laboratory experiments. One of the principles of scientific experiments is that if another scientist conducts exactly the same experiment in the same conditions, he should get the same results. This is impossible with field experiments because the participants' everyday environments will be different.

Lack of contamination

The major advantage of conducting field experiments in sociology is that, if properly conducted, the situation is not artificial. The subjects aren't contaminated by awareness that they are in an experiment.

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