Use of Experiments in Natural Sciences and in Sociology


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Use of Experiments in Natural Sciences and in Sociology

Experiments are particularly important in natural sciences as they are
the device used to either prove or disprove a hypothesis. Sciences
such as chemistry or physiology operate in what is known as closed
systems, where all the variables can be controlled. This means
therefore that such experiments can be carried out, and effectively.

Whereas it may be difficult in physical sciences to control the
variables, and in sociology to recreate everyday life, natural
sciences do not face the same overriding problems. What they are
investigating is predictable and all that makes up the experiment can
be controlled and changed in order to assess how true their hypothesis
is. They do not have to worry about the results not being reliable as
the situations do not change, nor do the subjects under study; they
are going to react to different situations in the same way every time.
Therefore they are particularly useful and well respected as they give
true, unquestionable results that ultimately prove or disprove a
hypothesis, with no room for any substantial opposing argument.

By using experiments it enables scientists to test precise
predictions. Laboratories are environments that the scientist can
control and indeed manipulate the various independent variables
however they wish. They can calculate the effects of a single
independent variable while removing the possibility that any other
factors are affecting the dependent variable they are studying.

b) Assess the reason why experiments are rarely used in sociology. (12
marks)

Even though experiments appear to be extremely useful in proving
something to be true, or to simply find a lot more about a certain
subject, in sociology they are not as useful and reliable. They
frequently incur many ethical or practical problems and are therefore
not used as often as the results they show are very questionable.

A first reason why they are rarely used in sociology is due to the
known and accepted fact that it is extremely difficult to recreate
normal life in the artificial setting of an experiment.

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It is one
thing to observe people and the goings on in society, but actually
trying to reconstruct a perfect, replica situation in a laboratory, in
a non-realistic setting is a whole different matter. For a start it
cannot be proven to be completely valid as what they are experimenting
may be totally different from how it would be in normal society.

Furthermore, there are often ethical problems in performing
experiments on people. Just the fact that they are being experimented
on, and in their eyes singled out for some reason, people may feel
they are being discriminated against and be offended by the research
that is being carried out directly on them. Not only might if offend
them, but with the underlying knowledge that they are being watched
could easily put added pressure and stress on their ordinary, calm
lives.

But experiments not only could affect the subject under study, but it
could consequently affect the results and their reliability. The
results may be influenced by the experimenter effect, where people
respond to what they perceive to be the expectations of the
researchers, rather than acting as if they would normally. Linked in
with this is the possibility of the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ where the
subject act differently as they know they are being experimented on
and respond differently as a result.

Ultimately though laboratories are unnatural situations. Members of
society do not, in the normal course of events, spend their time under
observation in laboratories. The knowledge that they are being
studied, and the artificiality of the situation, might well affect the
behaviour of those involved and distort the results so as to make them
of little use. Because the results obtained in a laboratory may have
little relationship to how people might behave outside the laboratory,
the results of experiments lack external validity.

It is impractical to carry out experiments in laboratories on many of
the subjects of interest to sociologists. It is not possible to fit a
community, let alone a whole society, into a laboratory. Nor is it
possible to carry out a laboratory experiment over a sufficiently long
time span to study social change.

Field experiments are therefore used which are outside the laboratory.
But although field experiments overcome the problem of experiments
taking place in an unnatural setting, these experiments do have other
problems associated with them. It is not possible to control variables
as closely as it is in the laboratory. Also, in some field
experiments, the fact that an experiment is taking place can affect
the results, as explained before with the ‘Hawthorne Effect’. To
possibly avoid this, it is necessary that the subjects of experimental
research are unaware that the experiment is taking place. This,
however, raises a further problem: the morality of conducting
experiments on people without their consent. Some sociologists
strongly object to do this.

Although field experiments open up greater possibilities than
laboratory experiments, they are still likely to be confined to
small-scale studies over short periods of time. Experimentation on
society as a whole, or on large groups of society, is only likely to
be possible with the consent of governments. Few governments are
willing to surrender their authority to social researchers who are
keen to test the theories and hypotheses they have developed. In these
circumstances sociologists normally rely upon studying society as it
is, rather than trying to manipulate it so that their theories can be
tested directly.

However, whilst there may be the obvious underlying problems
associated with experiments in sociology, they do have their clear
uses. Some of the techniques of experiments are used in sociology and
psychology, but in sociology there is the problem of being unable to
completely control the variables, something that is possible with
scientists. At least with the new form of experiment in the field
experiment, researchers are able to disrupt normal activity in an
attempt to uncover the phenomena they are investigating.

Nevertheless, experiments in sociology will always face the problem of
wanting to study people in society itself rather than in the false
situation of a laboratory, whereas what they see here is not a true
reflection of society, and consequently only gives them false results.


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