Learning Outcomes

  • Describe and give examples of how sociologists utilize experiments


You’ve probably tested some of your own theories: “If I study at night and review in the morning, I’ll improve my retention skills.” Or, “If I stop drinking soda, I’ll feel better.” Cause and effect. If this, then that. Causation is difficult to establish, so even if we seem to find evidence in our own lives that appears to prove our hypotheses, this is not sociological research nor is it evidence of causation. Sociologists set up specific studies in controlled environments in order to examine relationships between variables. Some studies are correlational, meaning they examine how two variables change together, while others are experimental, meaning they use controlled conditions to attempt to explain cause and effect. The primary difference between our everyday observations and sociological research is the systematic approach researchers use to collect data. 

Experiments aim to measure the relationship of the independent variable to the dependent variable, and the researcher or research team will attempt to control all other variables in the experimental process. This is often done in a lab-based setting, but can also be done as a field experiment. As discussed in the section on ethics, there are many considerations to address before any experimental work can occur. Sociologists must obtain approval from a review board (sometimes called an Internal Review Board or IRB) before they commence any type of sociological experiment.

Lab Settings

In a lab setting, the research can be controlled so that perhaps more data can be recorded in a certain amount of time. To set up a lab-based experiment, sociologists create artificial situations that allow them to manipulate variables. Classically, the sociologist selects a set of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or education. Those people are divided into two groups. One is the experimental group and the other is the control group. The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s) and the control group is not. This is similar to pharmaceutical drug trials in which the experimental group is given the test drug and the control group is given a placebo or sugar pill. To test the benefits of tutoring, for example, the sociologist might expose the experimental group of students to tutoring while the control group does not receive tutoring. Then both groups would be tested for differences in performance to see if tutoring had an effect on the experimental group of students. As you can imagine, in a case like this, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the accomplishments of either group of students, so the setting would be somewhat artificial. The test would not be for a grade reflected on their permanent record, for example.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is perhaps one of the most famous sociological experiments ever conducted. In 1971, 24 healthy, middle-class male university students were selected to take part in a simulated jail environment to examine the effects of social setting and social roles on individual psychology and behavior. They were randomly divided into 12 guards and 12 prisoners. The prisoner subjects were arrested at home and transported blindfolded to the simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building on the campus of Stanford University. Within a day of arriving the prisoners and the guards began to display signs of trauma and sadism, respectively. After some prisoners revolted by blockading themselves in their cells, the guards resorted to using increasingly humiliating and degrading tactics to control the prisoners through psychological manipulation. The experiment had to be abandoned after only six days because the abuse had gotten out of hand (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973).

While the insights into the social dynamics of authoritarianism it generated were fascinating, the Stanford Prison Experiment also serves as an example of the ethical issues that emerge when experimenting on human subjects and the types of emotional harm that subjects can endure as a result of participating in research. Additionally, this classic experiment, which is cited in most sociology and psychology textbooks, has recently been called out as being “theatre” rather than rigorous science. Some social scientists have even provided evidence to show that Zimbardo and his team coached research subjects into being cruel (guards) and dramatic (prisoners). The experiment has also been criticized for its small sample size and unrepresentative sample population.

Natural or Field-Based Experiments

In a natural or field-based experiment, the generation of data cannot be controlled, but the information might be considered more accurate since it was collected without interference or intervention by the researcher. As a research method, either type of sociological experiment is useful for testing if-then statements: if a particular thing happens, then another particular thing will result.

Sociologists Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski wanted to examine discrimination in the low-wage job market. They recruited white, Black, and Latino “testers,” who were assigned equivalent résumés and who were matched on a variety of characteristics such as age, education, physical appearance, and interpersonal skills. The testers applied to real job openings and recorded responses from employers. Because Black and white testers were sent to the same firms, and testers were matched on a wide variety of characteristics, “much of the unexplained variation that confounds residual estimates of discrimination [was] experimentally controlled” [1] The testers were college-educated males that comprised field teams that included a white, Latino, and Black tester; the Latino testers spoke in unaccented English and were U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican descent and claimed no Spanish language ability. They also examined the effect of a criminal record (felony drug offense) for different racial groups in job applications, building upon Pager’s research in 2003. Some résumés included a checked box to indicate a felony conviction and also listed prison labor as part of the applicant’s employment history. The teams applied for 340 real entry-level jobs throughout New York City over nine months in 2004. 

As with many of the most insightful sociological studies, Pager, Western & Bonikowski included qualitative data based on the testers’ interactions with employers, which provided a rich supplement to the empirical data acquired through this field experiment. Like Matthew Desmond’s multi-method approach to evictions (empirical— secondary resources; interpretive—ethnography), we see a similar approach here (empirical—field experiment; interpretive—testers’ narratives of interactions with employers). In this study, Blacks were only half as likely to receive a callback or job offer, and whites, Blacks, and Latinos with clean criminal backgrounds were no more likely to receive a callback as a white applicant just released from prison. Moreover, the testers did not perceive any signs of clear prejudice (Pager, Western, & Bonikowski, 2009). 

Sociologists have long been interested in inequality and discrimination. Read the study below to see how one sociology professor sent her students to the field. 

An Experiment in Action

The image shows a state police car that has pulled over another car near a highway exit.
Figure 1. Sociologist Frances Heussenstamm conducted an experiment to explore the correlation between traffic stops and race-based bumper stickers. This issue of racial profiling remains a hot-button topic today. (Photo courtesy of dwightsghost/flickr)

A real-life example will help illustrate the experiment process. In 1971, Frances Heussenstamm, a sociology professor at California State University, Los Angeles, had a theory about police prejudice. To test her theory she conducted an experiment. She chose fifteen students from three ethnic backgrounds: Black, white, and Latino. She chose students who routinely drove to and from campus along Los Angeles freeway routes, and who’d had perfect driving records for longer than a year. Those were her control variables—students, good driving records, same commute route. These students signed all had safe, up-to-date cars and signed a pledge to drive safely.

Next, she placed a Black Panther bumper sticker on each car. That sticker, a representation of a social value, was the independent variable. Founded in Oakland, California in 1966, the Black Panthers were a revolutionary African-American group actively fighting racism. Heussenstamm asked the students to follow their normal driving patterns. She wanted to see whether seeming to support the Black Panthers would change how these good drivers were treated by the police patrolling the highways (the dependent variable).

The first citation, for an incorrect lane change, was made two hours after the experiment began. One participant was pulled over three times in three days. He quit the study. After seventeen days, the fifteen drivers had collected a total of thirty-three traffic citations and the funding to pay traffic fines had run out. The experiment was halted (Heussenstamm 1971).

Try It

Think It Over

  • Do the findings in the Pager, Western & Bonikowski field experiment surprise you? Why or why not? In what ways can studies about discrimination inform public policy? 
  • What kinds of ethical issues are present in Heussenstamm’s experiment? Were some students at greater risk than others? How do you think the experiences of each group (Black, white, and Latino) differed? Do you think gender would influence the interaction between student and police officer? 
  • Imagine your sociology professor asked you to place a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker on your vehicle and asked you to sign an informed consent before participating in the study. Would you do it? Why or why not? How does geographic location and personal identity affect one’s experience and potential risk factors? 


[glossary-definition]the testing of a hypothesis under controlled conditions; tests a hypothesis to determine cause and effect relationships[/glossary-definition]

<a style="margin-left: 16px;" href="https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vy-T6DtTF-BbMfpVEI7VP_R7w2A4anzYZLXR8Pk4Fu4" target="_blank"

  1. Pager, D., Western, B. and B. Bonikowski. 2009. "Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market:  A Field Experiment." American Sociological Review. Vol. 74 (October:  777-799).


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