Experiment, Research and Biases

Some answers to these questions are straightforward. Others require a little imagination and the more insight and depth brought to them the better the answer.

Why might a sociologist researching social activity in the financial centres of the City of London wear a suit or formal dress?

In order to blend in and not introduce any more variables.

Why might a sociologist engaged in participant observation of a youth group avoid wearing a suit or formal dress?

In order to blend in and not introduce any more variables.
If a sociologist creates a situation that causes people in social situations to react, this is known as a Field Experiment.
Describe the main difficulty regarding a respondent's attitude towards a laboratory and the connected behaviour towards a researcher there.

The respondent generates meanings of the symbolically special place and the likely researcher's authority (wearing a white coat?) and acts to please.
A group of education sociologists decide to look at behaviour in a difficult school. They carry out several experiments and find that every initiative to alter behaviour involves improvement, and even control groups who see no experiment improve behaviour. There are variations in levels of behaviour, but the variables altered seem to explain nothing. How might such an experimental effect be known?

It is called the Hawthorne Effect, where the variable is the presence of researchers rather than responses to the specific experiments. However, some see a learning loop taking place, so there is more than simply the presence of researchers even if this presence is important.
Why should a sociologist presenting findings to the peer group of other sociologists write at some length about how the research was done and some of the issues involved?

It allows the research to be evaluated for its validity.
Was the Hawthorne Effect named after the sociologist in charge of the researchers who carried out the original study, a factory in which the research took place, or after the sociologist who reviewed the work and coined the phrase after herself?

It was named after the factory, the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electricity Company in Chicago in the late 1920s.
What is the meaning of value-free?

Value free means objective, neutral and without researcher bias, opposed to interpretivism and thus linked to science-following positivism (inductive) and falsifiability (deductive) based macro-sociology (its view of validity) and capable of being reliable.

This next question requires some writing in depth across a number of paragraphs. It is important to address as many issues as possible regarding bias.

A netball enthusiast decides to research the social cohesion of netball teams. This means she is interested in how they recruit others, how well they form themselves into a group, how much they interact and what sort of relationships form, including with supporters. She carries out some participant observation in two teams. In each team she plays along in practice if someone is absent, and she carries out some helpful administrative tasks. She claims that this is objective research and does not discuss in her report how she decided to do it or much about its method. Using some imaginative insight, outline some of the dangers of this research in terms of the claim to be objective, and the need for any such research to be valid.

By not describing her research method, the researcher does not allow others to evaluate her research for its validity - how it was practical, theoretical and ethical. Perhaps she has something to hide. Her claim to be objective would worry, given the obvious interpretivist nature of the research. From what sociologists can gather from the method and findings - and perhaps her enthusiasm for netball would show through - they would be suspicious of bias: bias in how she chose the topic and group and in the extent of her relationships with individuals and participation. She may well have gone beyond a usual practice of one privileged person amongst the researched. She could nevertheless justify her research by saying her high level of identification with the group gave additional insight. Against this a participant observer is supposed to blend in, not be part of the research.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful


Last updated on April 07, 2006