November 06, 2017

The Social Laboratory

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

If you’ve taken a research methods class, you know that some sociologists use the scientific method to conduct research. There are variations to how we employ the scientific method, particularly between quantitative and qualitative studies. While quantitative questions often draw on large datasets, qualitative research often (though not always) requires the researcher to go out and interact with people.

Just as students in the natural and computer sciences research questions in scientific or technical labs, social science students often research their questions in what we can understand as a social laboratory.

Within the United States, Sociology really took root under both the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, under W.E.B. DuBois, at the Atlanta University (now known as Clark Atlanta University) in Georgia in the late 1800s, and the Chicago School of Sociology at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s. Both of these early schools used cities as social laboratories within their research.

Under DuBois’ leadership, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was the first of its kind (and the first to produce sociological scholarship) in the United States. It spearheaded both urban studies and sociology of the South; with studies such as DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro (1899), and Social and Physical Condition, of Negroes in Cities (1897). Within its studies, the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory highlighted the importance of method triangulation (this is the use of multiple methods to answer research questions), insider researchers (who help to build rapport and provide deep insight into racial, ethnic, and cultural differences), and sharing both scholarly findings with the public and the limitations of one’s research.

Although often overlooked within mainstream sociology (this is only recently changing), the research conducted by DuBois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was groundbreaking and influenced the ways that sociologists continue to approach research today. This is particularly true in terms of qualitative researchers who approach their studies from a place of reciprocity and public engagement.

Influenced by DuBois, Weber, and other scholars of his time, Chicago sociologist, Robert E. Park believed that cities reveal the social processes and human behaviors that are so often hidden or overlooked in smaller communities. The Chicago School really pushed people to think about human ecology or the ways that human behavior and our personalities are framed by both the social and physical environments that one encounters. What does that mean? Space and things and people matter. We are shaped by the towns or cities that we live in, the buildings that we encounter, and the presence of highways, sidewalks, et cetera.

To study this, the Chicago sociologists looked to the local neighborhoods of Chicago. As was the case with Philadelphia and Atlanta to DuBois, Chicago became the social laboratory for Park and the other University of Chicago sociologists.

So then what are social laboratories? We can understand social laboratories as geographically bound places that can provide new information on social conditions. They operate as “field sites, sources of empirical data, and [places] of experimentation.” For students, the neighborhoods and towns surrounding a college or university serve as an easily accessible social laboratory rich with research opportunity. We see this especially with the University of Chicago’s use of nearby neighborhoods and the city of Chicago as a whole in various studies.

This means that students can go into the surrounding areas to further develop their sociological imaginations and continue to learn social scientific methods. This provides potentially wonderful opportunities for the students, the college or university, the social science professors. If conducted with a sense of reciprocity, residents, local organizations (nonprofits, businesses, and others), and governmental agencies can also benefit from these arrangements. For instance, as a I stated in a post last year, insights into the Flint Water crisis in Detroit emerged from collaborations between local doctors and researchers from Virginia Tech.

However, there are several unintended consequences that may arise when we view people and places as part of a lab. Unlike scientific labs, our social world is not controllable. Additionally, many sociological studies tend to focus on the social conditions of our most marginalized and exploited populations. Researchers who do not consistently self-reflect on their methods and/or do not engage with their participants/informants throughout a study risk further marginalizing already oppressed groups.

While you may be asking research questions of a neighborhood or town population for the first time, these residents most likely have interacted with students and researchers asking similar questions several times, with little benefit to themselves. This leads to research fatigue and general annoyance.

If as students, researchers, and professors, we collectively plan to address social issues, then we must learn to work with our neighbors outside of the academic setting. One way to prevent research fatigue and ensure that researchers are not engaging in studies that may harm participants is to follow the sociologists code of ethics:

  1. Approach research as a process that attempts to uncover truths within our areas of expertise
  2. Do not knowingly make false statements (don’t lie).
  3. Do not treat research as more important than humans
  4. Treat our informants/participants with respect (this includes informed consent and letting your participant or informant know of her ability to remove herself from a research study. This is what we call voluntary participation.)
  5. Reflect on the power dynamics inherent within research projects

In addition to these five principles, some sociologists believe in reciprocity in research and/or engaged scholarship. Taking a lesson from the early Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, some researchers share their research with the public and/or include local informants in the research design. For example, if you were interested in understanding issues confronting the homeless population in your town, you might partner with a local homeless shelter and/or housing taskforce to co-design your research project.

In thinking about your next research project, how might you work to diminish some of the negative consequences on social laboratories?

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