Sociology: Experiments

  • Created by: wika0821
  • Created on: 20-06-21 15:51

What are experiments?

The main method of natural sciences (chem, physics and biology)

KEY FEATURE -> high degree of control the researcher has.

Two main types of experiments:

1. Laboratory experiments / 2. Field experiments

Lab. ex. -> more control but are artificial.

Field ex. -> less control but the results are more realistic.

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Laboratory experiments

Pos. like them because they are reliable. Lab. ex. can be easily replicated by any researcher. They also collect quantitative data in a structured and scientific manner.

Inter. don't like them as they are low in validity. 

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Laboratory experiments

Lab. experiments have many weaknesses:

Artificiality -> they are artificial environments = unlikely results can be transferred to the real world. People react differently in an artificial environment than they would in the real world. LOW  IN VALIDITY.

Identifying and controlling variables -> they're only effective if all variables are identified and controlled, this can be impossible to achieve due to how complex social interactions and behaviours are. 

The Hawthorne effect -> people act differently in artificial situations (even if they are misled as to the purpose of the experiment) which makes them low in validity. Individuals may act in a way that paints them in a good light, is meant to please the researcher or is socially acceptable- they may not act like this in the real world.

Ethical problems -> to be effective, researchers often have to manipulate and mislead participants about the purpose of the study to find their real reactions. This makes it impossible to gain fully informed consent and thus ethical questions arise.

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Laboratory experiments

More weaknesses:

Limited application -> laboratories are small and so only small-scale interactions can be studied. It is also impossible to study past events or those that last long periods of time.

Free will -> Inter. believe that human beings are different from the natural phenomenons natural science study because we have consciousness and free will. Thus they believe that sociological concepts cannot be studied in a scientific manner.


The researcher has a lot of control over variables.

Pos. like them as they are high in reliability due to their structured and standardised nature. Experiments can be done several times by many different researchers. 

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Field experiments

They take place outside in the real world.

The sociologist either creates a situation or adapts a real-life situation to their study.

participants are often unaware of their involvement whilst the study is taking place.

The aim of field experiments is to have control over variables yet avoid the artificiality of a laboratory.

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Field experiments


Less artificiality -> as they are set in real-world situations.

Validity -> because people are in a natural setting and unaware that they are being studied, their reactions are far more likely to be genuine.


Less control over variables -> they are not scientific in nature as it is impossible for the sociologist to control all the variables.

Limited application -> there aren't many situations that can be adapted to research. It is possible to study the influence of one factor however anything more complex is virtually impossible. Field exp. often only study what people do and not why they do it.

Ethical problems -> as participants are unaware they're being researched, they cannot provide informed consent. 

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The comparative method

This is a 'thought experiment.

The researcher, in their mind, identifies two groups that are the same apart from one characteristic (e.g they may be of different religions).

Durkheim compared suicide rates between Protestants and Catholics- C's have a lower suicide rate due to their social integration.

It avoids artificiality. / It can be used to study past events. / It poses no ethical problems.


It gives no control over variables.

It is not enough to prove that they have discovered the true cause of something.

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Experiments in education

Application in the classroom:

Field exp. are sometimes used to study aspects of classroom life.

A classroom has clear boundaries of space and time which give the sociologist more control.


These experiments are often simple and thus easy to replicate.

However, they may not be entirely replicable as schools are different from one another.

However, they have broadly similar features and so experiments can be repeated in broadly similar ways.

E.g the original 'Pygmalopn in the classroom' study has been replicated hundreds of times.

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Experiments in education

Ethical problems:

Sometimes experiments take place during real learning situations.

Students are considered to be vulnerable and less able to understand what is happening to them.

This makes it hard to achieve their informed consent.

Lab. exp. are rarely used in education for this reason. 

Limited application:

Exp.s are small scale and can often only study one aspect of behaviour.

Bigger issues found in education (social classes) cannot be studied easily using this method.

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Experiments in education

Controlling all the variables:

Exps. require the researcher to be able to control all the variables in a situation.

Schools = large, complex institution.

Many variables impact a student's behaviour e.g class size/ streaming, etc.

It is impossible to identify and control all variables.

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