Monday, May 11, 2009

Field Experiments and Racism

When sociologists study something, we usually start by making observations. Maybe we take a survey, in which case we covert our observations to answers on a questionnaire, or maybe we’ll do fieldwork and go out into a social situation and watch what goes on. In either case, we’re not changing what we’re studying, or at least we’re not trying to, but rather we’re just watching it and recording what we learn.

In contrast to these observational studies, we could intentionally change something and then see what happens as a result. This is an experimental approach. With an experiment, you have two or more groups, and the researcher (or somebody) does something to one of the groups but not the other. What the researcher does is the independent variable (or cause). The researcher then measures the outcome of what happens—the dependent variable (or effect).

The idea of an experiment conjures up images of a mad scientist in a castle or at least well-funded psychologists in laboratories messing with introductory psychology students. Another approach, however, is called a field experiment, where the researcher conducts an experiment in a natural setting instead of laboratory.

Here’s a video that illustrates this approach. In it, the reporting team from ABC News sets up an experiment. They park an old car in a parking lot in a predominately white neighborhood. They then have several white teenagers vandalize the car for about an hour. These kids jump on the car, spray paint it, and try to break into it. During this time, several people walking by stop and talk to the kids, sometimes even telling them not to do it. However, during that period of time, only one person called the police.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Next, the reporters repeated the situation but they used African-American teens instead. The kids did the same things to the car for about the same period of time, but this time ten people called the police. The conclusion? The race of the possible offender influences whether their actions are defined as criminal, so it’s not just what people do that matters but also who they are. (Unfortunately, the news crew did not repeat the experiment in a predominately black neighborhood.)

Field experiments have a lot going for them. Like all experiments, the causality is clear. The independent variable precedes the dependent variable, and, if the study is done correctly, the change in the dependent variable is the only difference (on average) between the two groups. Sociologists call this internal validity— which means we can trust the causal story of a study.

Also, field experiments measure things that people might not report on surveys, either because they don’t want to look bad or they don’t realize that aspect of themselves. For example, imagine we gave a survey to the people in the community described above, and we asked them if they would be more likely to call police if they saw African-American kids committing vandalism. I imagine that they would all so “no”—who wants to be viewed as potentially racist? Yet, in the field experiment, that’s exactly what they did.

Finally, field experiments take place in naturalistic settings in contrast to laboratory settings which happen in small, windowless rooms in academic buildings. Now, maybe what happens in lab experiments generalizes to the real world just fine, but we’re more confident in the generalizability of field experiments because they actually happen in everyday life. Sociologists call this external validity.

So, field experiments have both high internal and external validity. Sweet deal!

This raises the question of why sociologists don’t do more field experiments. Perhaps one reason is that it’s not traditional in sociology. When I went through graduate school, I received a lot of training in survey research, some in qualitative methods, and none in experiments.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how to translate a sociological topic into a field experiment. Let me give you an example. I study the sociology of religion, and I am also very interested in field experiments. This makes me wonder about how to study religion using field experiments. To do this, I need to randomly assign religion, or at least the perception of religion, or randomly assign something that will change religion. Obviously I can’t just assign religious beliefs—“you’re Christian, you’re Muslim, you’re Hindu.” Also, it’s tough to assign levels of religiosity. “Could you stop going to church so much?”

So, can religion be studied using a field experiment, and, if so, how? I have some thoughts, but I would like to hear what you think. If you have some ideas, send them to me at Who knows? Maybe your idea will someday be featured on a television show!

Originally posted on


Jordan said...

These exposes are always interesting, tho unfortunately usually aimed at the white majority, who does deserve to be studied, but one should also look at blacks and Asians as well. Racist stories from those communities are prominent as well.

Brad Wright said...

I agree that it would be interesting to do them in a variety of contexts....

John Williams said...

Interesting videos, Brad. I think I'll use them in my Experimental Psych class to demonstrate Field Experiments. Anything's better than my lecturing about it.