Principles and Methods of Social Research

By William D. Crano; Marilynn B. Brewer | Go to book overview
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The preceding chapters discussed various ways in which experiments conducted in laboratory environments can be made as realistic, involving, and impactful as possible. Even when such methods are used, however, it is still desirable to move outside of the laboratory, into field contexts, to extend and validate the results of any research program in the social sciences. As we state throughout this book, research should be conceived as a process in which observation gives rise to theory, which is followed by research. Variations between expectations and research results lead social scientists back to observation, to theory revision, and back to research, as shown in Figure 7.1. It is important to note that neither laboratory nor field research is accorded primacy in this diagram. Each has its place, and each should be engaged in only after appropriate observation and theory development. This chapter reinforces this view by considering how experimental methods can be applied outside the laboratory, and how laboratory and field experiments can be used in conjunction with each other. Later chapters address nonexperimental research methods in field contexts.

The distinction between laboratory and field is basically one of setting, that is, the context in which the research is conducted. A laboratory is a designated location to which potential participants must go to take part in the research. A field study is one in which the investigator brings the research operations to the potential participants in their own environment or naturalistic setting. With the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW) as a venue for research, social scientists move even farther away from the sterile confines of the laboratory, more into the participants' own world, often into their homes or offices.

With the WWW, the distinction between field and lab becomes even more blurred than before. The school classroom, for instance, is sometimes converted into a “laboratory” for research purposes, and many laboratory studies have been conducted under the guise of some other activity, such as job interviews or group discussions. In general, however, laboratory and field experiments differ on the important dimension of how aware (or unaware) participants are of the fact that they are involved in a research study. In field settings—even when informed in advance that a research study is underway—participants


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