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An experiment is a research method for which an investigator plans, builds or otherwise controls the conditions under which phenomena are observed. Experiments are used rarely in sociology where they are concentrated in the subfields of group processes and social psychology.
There are two distinct types of experiments -empiricist and theory-driven experiments (Willer and Walker 2007). Empiricist experiments are excellent tools for discovering phenomena and relations between phenomena. Empiricist designs (1) identify an event (X) that is presumed to ”cause” another event (Y), (2) build experimental conditions in which X is present and control conditions in which X is absent, (3) randomly assign subjects to treatments, and (4) observe occurrences of Y.
Theory-driven experiments (1) build models of structures and processes described by theory, (2) translate theory-based models into experimental designs, and (3) find outcomes predicted by theory.
Sociology experiments are conducted in a variety of settings and experimental control varies substantially across them. Natural experiments are characterized by the absence of experimental control and laboratory experiments offer maximum possible control.
Vietnam-era draft lotteries created conditions for natural experiments. Days of the year were drawn randomly and used to order men’s draft eligibility. The procedure established ”natural” experimental groups including (1) certain draftees (i.e., men born on dates with low numbers) and (2) men with uncertain but calculable odds of being drafted (i.e., those with higher numbers). Subsequent research showed that men with low draft numbers had higher long-term, non-military mortality rates than those with higher numbers (Hearst et al. 1986).
Field experiments are conducted in natural settings and usually have limited experimental control. Massey and Lundy (2001) studied landlords’ reactions to race-identified language by controlling speech characteristics of putative renters. They had no control of their subjects’ characteristics; all of them had placed ads in local publications.
Survey experiments conduct studies with large samples, control the selection of participants and randomly assign participants to treatments (i.e., survey questions or forms of questions). The result is a powerful tool for discovering important social relationships or for testing theory.
Laboratory experiments offer maximum control. Researchers select participants and control the conditions under which they are studied. Moore (1968) studied women who attended the same community college and gave them information that their simulated partners differed from them on a single characteristic – the school she attended. The high degree of control was important because one scope restriction on the theory under test required group members to differ on a single characteristic.
The Future of Sociology Experiments
The future of experiments in sociology is not clear. Perhaps, the spread of experimental techniques to other social and behavioral sciences will increase their visibility in sociology and create greater demand for sociologists trained in experimental methods.
- Hearst, N., Newman, T. B., & Hulley, S. B. (1986) Delayed effects of the military draft on mortality: a randomized natural experiment. New England Journal of Medicine 314: 620-4.
- Massey, D. S. & Lundy, G. (2001) Use of black English and discrimination in urban housing markets: new methods and findings. Urban Affairs Review 36: 452-69.
- Moore, J. C. (1968) Status and influence in small group interactions. Sociometry 31: 47-63.
- Willer, D. and Walker, H. A. (2007) Building Experiments: Testing Social Theory. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.