Quantitative Research Methods

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Positivist sociologists, who model their approach to research on the logic and methods of the natural sciences, may also occasionally use laboratory experiments. However, sociologists often also use two other kinds of experiment in their research:field experiments, and the comparitive method or 'thought experiment'.


Control A laboratory experiment is a controlled experiment. The laboratory is an artificial environment in which the scientist can control different variables in order to discover what effect they have. In this way, the scientist can test hypotheses about the cause of a phenomenon, with the aim of discovering a casual law.

  • The experimental group are exposed to a variable (called the independent variable) that the researcher believes may have a particular effect
  • The control group are not exposed to the independent variable - their conditions are kept constant

Cause and Effect The condition of both groups is measured before the experiement starts and again at the end. If we discover a change in th experimental group but none in the control group, we may conclude that this was caused by the different treatments the two groups received. In other words, by following the logic of the experimental method, we can discover cause-and-effect relationships. This allows us to predict what will happen under the same conditions in the future.

However, while laboratory experiments are the basic research method in most natural sciences, they are rarely used in sociology. There are a number of practical, ethical and theoretical reasons for this.

                                              PRACTICAL ISSUES 

Open Systems Sociologists such as Keat and Urry (1982) argue that laboratory experiments are only suitable for studying closed systems where the researcher


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