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The main aspects of the experimental method can be illustrated by the following example. This experiment was
conducted to test the HYPOTHESIS or supposition that, `The speed of a boat depends on the shape of its hull'.
Controlling variables In order to discover the effect of hull shape on speed it is necessary to identify and control
all the variables or factors which might affect shape. This is difficult to do outside a laboratory since variables such
as wind strength and temperature cannot be controlled. In a laboratory, it is possible to control such variables and
keep them constant so that hull shape is the only factor which varies from oval, to triangular, to rectangle, etc. In
this way it is possible to find out how hull shape affects speed.
Quantifying results The results of experiments are usually quantified presented in the form of numbers. Thus the
speed of a model boat in the laboratory can be measured in centimetres per second using a metre rule and a
stopwatch. Using a standard objective system of measurement is important as it reduces reliance on the judgment of
the investigator and is therefore more likely to produce reliable data. And, it allows other researchers to
REPLICATE or repeat experiments and directly compare results.
Correlation and causation If changes in one variable (e.g. the shape of the hull) are matched by changes in
another variable (e.g. the speed of the boat) then there is a CORRELATION between the two variables. But this
does not mean that one causes the other. However being able to control variables in a laboratory does help us to
judge whether the correlation is causative rather than coincidental. In the case of the boat, the only apparent change
is in hull shape so any change in speed is likely to result from this.
Laboratory experiments and people Laboratory experiments have been very successful in the natural sciences
such as physics and chemistry. However, many sociologists have serious doubts about their application to human
beings. This is partly because people act in terms of their definitions of situations. They are likely to define
laboratories as artificial situations and act accordingly. As a result, their actions may be very different from their
behaviour in the `real' world. An attempt to get round this is the FIELD EXPERIMENT, an experiment which takes
place in people's everyday situations.
Field experiments are conducted in normal social situations such as the classroom, the factory and the street corner.
The following example was devised to test the effect of social class on interaction between strangers (Sissons,
1970).An actor stood outside Paddington Station in London and asked people for directions. The actor, place and
request were kept the same but the actor's dress varied from a businessman to a labourer. The experiment indicated
that people were more helpful to the `Businessman'. It could therefore be argued that people were responding to
what they perceived as the actor's social class. However, there are other possibilities. E.g. the actor may behave
more confidently in his role as a businessman and people might respond to his level of confidence rather than level of
Lack of control Field experiments are always going to be inexact and `messy'. It is impossible to identify and
control all the variables which might affect the results. E.g. it is difficult, if not impossible, to control the social class
of the people asked for directions in the above experiment. Most of them may have been middle class. If so, they
may have been more helpful to the `businessmen' because he seemed `more like them'.
The Hawthorne effect Whether in the laboratory or in more normal social contexts, people are often aware they
are participating in an experiment. And this in itself is likely to affect their behaviour. This particular experimental
effect is often known as the Hawthorne effect since it was first observed during a study at Hawthorne Works of the
Western Electricity Company in Chicago in the late 1920s. The researchers conducted an experiment to discover
whether there was a relationship between the workers' productivity and variables such as levels of lightning and
heating and the frequency of rest periods. The researchers were puzzled as the results appeared to make little or no
sense. E.g. productivity increased whether the temperature in the workplace was turned up or down. The only
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factor which appeared to explain the increase in productivity was the workers' awareness that they were part of an
experiment hence the term Hawthorne effect.
Experimenter bias People act in terms of how they perceive others. They will tend to respond differently if the
experimenter is young or old, male or female, Black or White and so on. People also tend to act in terms of how
they think others expect them to act.…read more