April 13, 2009

Field Experiments and Racism

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When sociologists study something, we usually start by making observations. Maybe we take a survey, in which case we convert 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 Bradley.wright@uconn.edu. Who knows? Maybe your idea will someday be featured on a television show!


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I would think that you would have to something similar to vandalism/race experiment. You'd have to plant someone or work with some members of the community to set up a situation to study the other members. Then try this same situation in various religious communities.

You People are doing a great job....n this is a nice article...I am a regular ,for the past 2 months..
I am from India .We are also a pluralistic society,just like U.S. but here i guess ,the Religions are still in little more pristine or original form (except Christians maybe).

Now ,i would like to watch a similar setting being applied here.
surely,would get back to You if i get some idea..

I am sociology student from Sweden and I really like this blog, let me say that first. But I do think the conclusion drawn from the ABC video is problematic. It's far too individualising in two respects. First of all it concludes that the rasicm is within the passers-by, either consiously or subconsiously, whether or not this was influenced by structures in society is not the issue, it is still internalized.

Second,it is assumed that the racism is directed to the individual components of the actors (actor in the movie sense, not the sociological), i.e. that it is the fact that they are black that changes the actions of the passer-bys.

I think to understand the situation you will have to look at hte entire actor-network and see that the passers first of all try to figure out the relation between the vandals and the car and if this was a "predominately white neighborhood" (and I suppose kind of wealthy) the passers assumed it was less likely that black kids dressed out of style for the neighbourhood would not be the owners of the car. I mean, the white kids didn't have hoods on or wasn't dressed as punks or anything.

So let's not see it as one set of individuals having one set of sub-consious-structure-influenced-or-not assumptions about another set of individuals, in which case the only possible politics is changing peoples perceptions and attitudes. But instead see the entire relation between passer-by, vandal, style, car, ownership and neighbourhood. In that case, the politics is instead about making it less likely that black kids own cars and live in the kind of area this film was recorded in.

The experiment done by ABC was correct in attributing how we identify how wrong something is based on outside surroundings. All the people walking by were white and a subconsciously thinking that they are just like me but not really doing a great thing however, when they see black kids doing the same thing they think that they are different and unlike me and see them doing wrong which inquires them calling the police.

It is very sad that people in our society judge so quickly. Everyone should be treated equal, and be seen for who they really are, not because of the color of their skin, or anything else like that.

In our society these days people judge one another so quickly. Everyone seem to think that skin color changes out a person is on the inside. We all should be treated equally.

I strongly agree with your point of view regarding conducting research using field study. I'm just really amazed that the three African American males sleeping in the back seat of a car were called in more than the white boys actually vandalizing the vehicle close by. It's also interesting to see that 10 people called in the African American teens while only 1 person called in the Caucasian teens. I don't think that if the witnesses were given a survey instead that they would respond the way they reacted. Also, as it was shown in the interviews, many witnesses developed different excuses, giving reason as to why they didn't call in. When the people who called in the African American boys were questioned about whether they would've called if the boys were white, many of them responded that they would've done the same. With the results of both experiments, this is clearly not the case. While this ABC news project wasn't a lab experiment, it was a great field experiment that can teach a major lesson. This only proves that there is more than one way to conduct a research project, and many times, one approach is much more affective than the other.

It is always somewhat funny, but not in a humorous way, to watch these experiments be conducted. I’m not really that surprised to see the difference in reaction between those who saw the white teenagers committing the crime as compared to those who saw the backs teens. It is an unfortunate but an obvious realization that racism still exists in the world today. I think what this experiment is trying to prove is that people are easily influenced by stereotypes rather than acting upon their own feelings and judgments. Though this experiment doesn’t necessarily prove that those who called the police on the black teens are racist, it does show that skin color may and can affect your thought process. I would like to think that the public would call the police if any crime was witnessed regardless of race but that may not always be true. The stereotype of ethnic background teens can consist of being criminally dangerous so the association with catching them in the act of wrongdoing provides a sense or heroism; something that I think influenced those who called the police on the black vandals. It also provides respect for those who confronted the white teens, even though they were really just doing the ‘right’ thing. Hopefully these types of experiments will prove that anyone is capable of committing offensive and corruptive dishonestly despite racial profiling.

I would also be interested in seeing black vs. white kids in a predominately black area, teenage girls vs. boys (of all races), and how nice the car ways.

I'm also interested in what time of day these two scenarios occurred. They made it seem like the white boys were in the morning, and the black boys were in the afternoon. That could make a big difference in passerby behavior, too.

What an interesting study. Very sad how race effected the outcome though.

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This a great experiment and extremely interesting. I didn't really understand how sociologist could really carry through the scietific method when reasearching. I that sociologist really couldn't preform these types of studies with independent and dependent variables. Also i think it's terrible how people called the police because three black people where sleeping a a car. How does someone who is sleeping look like they are going to rob someone?

All I can say is this is crazy.Only one 911 call for the 3 white boys and 10 calls for the 3 black boys. I feel if you dont believe racism still goes on today then you are probably not living on earth. How can 3 people sleeping in a car look like they are about to rob somebody? Stereotypes caused these different reactions by the public and you can tell. Just because the 3 kids were black, the public automatically assumed that anything they were doing was probably no good. But the 3 white kids got the benefit of doubt because of their skin color. Its sad to see that the only crime white people can see is if a black person is doin it.I am also a sociology student and I feel that even though this is only one experiment, the evidence of racism is still there.

That post is so true. I'm still in high school and racism florishes. Almost everytime I hear someone gossiping about someone who got in some sort of trouble, there is always someone who comments on the person's race. "Is she black"?, or "No wonder he did that... he's a mexican". It can get really bad sometimes. Thank you for voicing your opinion. The video makes your words even more powerful.

I found this specific article very interesting. I am taking a Sociology class online this summer, and in this chapter we are learning about racism and minorities. I also had to conduct a field experiment, but it was not nearly as intense as this one. I find it rather hard to use my sociological imagination because I have been raised to be open, respect, and treat everyone the same. So in this case, when so many people treat the black kids differently than the white ones, it floors me. If I was found in that situation I would defiantly treat the two types of kids the same. Because of history though, i'm sure I would be more scared of the African Americans. I think it's horrible that this type of racism still exists today, and I wish there was something we could do to grow closer as a country even with our differences

I was actually not shocked that more calls were made when the African Americans were the ones vandalizing the car. I think its ridiculous, though, that a call was made about "suspicious kids in a car" just because they were black.

Why would you want to intentionally change the results of an experiment? If you're doing an experiment isn't the purpose to see what results you'll get and not the ones you want?

I found this article to be very interesting. In my sociology class, we have just learned about how to conduct field experiments and about how to go about doing an experiment. The author made the point of if the people in the neighborhood had been handed a survey, their answers would have been different then the actions they preformed in the field experiment. No one would want to be viewed as a racist, however their actions were racist. This experiment is very eye opening to the truth of the world we live in.

I think that racism is not as much of a problem today as it was back in the day, but many American's are still subconsciously racist due to their upbringing. Racism will not be as much of a problem when today's youth grow up into adults.

This was actually a very interesting blog post. Although the experiment showed some good results, the experiment should have been done in a lab even though it may have been a little more difficult. The reason is because random problems could have gone wrong. For example, more people could have passed by when the black kids were hurting the car. However, the experiment was nicely done for the most part but should definitely be done again. Also, I definitely agree racism is a little easier to do an experiment with than religion.

Do you know of an old sociology game/test that I took in high school (35 years ago) where it listed about 20 different types of people with particular characteristics and then you had to pick 10 of those to start the world over with after a nuclear fall-out? It wasn't particular people in history. It was more like a list of general people with one or two words describing each with different age, color, occupation, something unique about each one? For example, a 67-year-old nuclear physicist, a woman of childbearing age, a nutritionist, etc.

I felt that the experiment was interesting but I agree this experiment should have been repeated in a black community completely. You might find it surprizing what the results would be, I hope one day you repeat the test.

I predicted that when the blacks vandalized the car more people would call the police rather than the whites, so I found that experiment very interesting becasue blacks are always looked down upon and are exspected to cause harm. As far as studying religion and conducting a field experiment I find that a little weird because when your conducting an experiment everyone is suppose to behaveas they normally would. So if your telling people to act like a certain religion your experiment is not going to be accurate at all.

At first I would think that field experiments are popular in sociology, yet they aren't that famous. Here are the following topics of why I think sociologist don't perform more field experiments: to not disturb the public, someone in the setting might not be okay with being secretly studied maybe they'll consider it as invading their privacy, field experiments lack replicability and representiveness, they could get in trouble with the law or fined for doing or being part of something illegal, Some field notes taken by the etnographer will not include a vast majority of the population, The experiment will only represent a small population, and
I also believe that sociologist don't do field experiments anymore because something that may be research study for them, may be perceived as a racist act because of the selection of the setting or the individuals selected for the experiment.

My belief that sociologists don't do more field experiments is that, like Bradley Wrights said, sometimes sociologists cannot translate a sociological topic into a field experiment. Another reason might be because of racial and gender issues. For example, if a sociologist would want to study Black people, he would obviously have to go and set up his work at a predominately Black neighborhood. Therefore, that would cause Black people to think that this man is racist, because of the setting the sociologist chose. Another reason might be because, many people don't like people secretly studying and recording their every move. It disturbs their peace and invades their privacy.

I liked this article although I could not view part 1 or part 2 of the video. But by reading the article I realized that field experiments are a touchy subject. For one, the sociologist or the ethnographer desires to learn more about a culture or religion but it may come off as too bias, racist, or have some sort of discrimination. It is tough for sociologist because field experiments need one to be in the culture/neighborhood of the group. In one way or another the experiment will come off as being racist and they begin to question, "Why are you suspecting blacks/whites/asians/hispanics?" There is no pleasing at all in a field experiment. Although it becomes helpful like the two ladies in our textbook who went out and studied teen moms/single moms. The only difference for them was that one was pregnant and related to the teen moms/single moms. It would be a lot easier if the ethnographer was the same race or in the same culture as the group that was being observed on.

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