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.

ABC News set up an experiment to illustrate this approach. 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. The 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.

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 put “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 [email protected]. Who knows? Maybe your idea will someday be featured on a television show!


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.

Field experiments are effective because they have high internal and external validity. Unlike surveys, field experiments can measure things that people may be afraid to report. For example, no one would admit to being more likely to report African-American criminals than white criminals in order to not look like a potential racist. Sociologists don't often use field experiments because they are not traditional in the field of sociology. They are not as widely used as other methods such as survey research. As stated in the article, sociological topics are not easily translated into field experiments. For example, the field experiment on race is easier to conduct than an experiment on religion. There is a clear dependent variable and a clear independent variable as well.

This article shows not only the idea of field experiments, but that racism is stll alive. it's great to have experiments like this to keep society informed about the world we're living in.

Another reason sociologists will not do fieldwork is because the do not want to contaminate their experiment with their own personal bias or judgements. Also, the expectation for a certain outcome can effect the experiment in a negative. This means that a sociologist will choose to record data that is favorable to his hypothesis rather than recording the facts.

Just as Bradley Wright said in his article, some sociological topics have a hard time finding a way to make their research a field experiment for example, sociology of religion. Another reason I can think of why sociologist don’t do field experiments is because of the cost of all the materials to create the experiment. A field experiment also studies a some group of people which is not enough to determine as a large population or whole population. In the destroying car experiment, many people had walked by and witnessed the actions of the kids but that doesn’t mean those people decisions don’t make up for the whole population.

I believe that there are several reasons why sociologists don't do more field experiments. Maybe it's just something that is not common practice or taught very much. It could be because not every study can be translated into a field experiment like Bradley Wright said. Another reason that I thought of as I read this article is the issue of race or gender. Maybe doing field experiments can cause issues with the public and maybe researchers try to avoid these issues. These are some of the reasons that I believe field experiments are not done frequently.

Sociologists may not conduct more field experiments because it is not easy to translate a topic into an experiment. Sociologists may not want to conduct field experiments because they are not as convenient as sending out surveys. The risks involved in some field experiments may hinder sociologists from conducting them. Also, sociologists may choose not to conduct more field experiments because of the research method’s disadvantages: lack of control brings problem of extraneous variables, difficult to replicate, difficult to record data accurately, and ethical problems.

At first, I thought using field experiments was the best way to go about conducting an experiment, but like Bradley Wright suggests, it is difficult to come up with a way to translate certain research into field experiments. Although, I do not believe that this is the biggest reason why most sociological topics are not translated into field experiments. I believe that the biggest reason why field experiments aren't used as much is simply because these experiments can interfere with other people's privacy, which would upset many people living in the area at the time. Lastly, people may feel as though the experiment itself is racist because it might be focusing more strongly on race.

An example of why sociologist do not do field experiments is what happened with the case of the team from ABC News. In this case, researchers learned that people aren’t just judge by what they do, but who they are as well. Since field experiments take place in naturalistic settings and measure responses that people might not report on surveys, results might not be the same. To not look bad (or racist) people can say one thing on paper but react different given a real life situation. They also might not realize aspects of themselves until given the circumstance.

Field experiments is a conversation stopper. If I did an experiment on extreme bullying inside a classroom, everybody would stop and stare at me. It's important to use our sociological imagination because in a world with so much culture diversity it becomes hard to interpret sociological data. The three core concepts that sociologists use in research methods and statistics is how the dependent variable is affected by the independent variable and how the circumstances such as having the white kids or black kids vandalize the car make a huge difference.

I believe that this experiment was a great example of how some of modern day society really. I couldn't agree more without the results either. I don't know why this is, but I've seen it happen all the time.

I really like this article, its talking about something really important here in US the 'Racism'. I'm from middle east and I have been in US 2 years ago. I never felt treated different or someone give me a bad look. But between whites and black I think the situation is different here. Also this problem needs some experiments research.

Professor Pih

I feel that field experiments should be used more than poles, because I feel it would increase the validity of the data in the experiment. I think doing field experiments are not widely used because their is not always a way to effectively test questions in society. Like Bradly wright said, "how do you test religion"?

Dr. Pih
After reading about what field experiments are, I found it to be something I’d rather do instead of conducting an experiment in a lab because I enjoy actually going out in the environment and getting a feel of what’s going on. As I continued to read this article, I kept getting one pro after another so I wondered what the cons were and if there were any? Finally he mentioned how you can’t always translate a sociological topic into a field experiment and used religion as an example. That opened my mind to start thinking about field research in a different way, so to think of other possible reasons why sociologists don’t do more field research I came up with a few more. One reason is that field research is that it's time consuming. You would actually have to go out and observe to gather information which sometimes sociologist just don’t have the time for and need answers as quickly as possible. Another reason,which kind of links to my first one, is that you only get to work with a small sample size of the population. That could be either because it’s time consuming or maybe because it is expensive to do so. The high cost of doing field research is also one more reason. Finally, sometimes language can be an issue in field research. It doesn’t have to be completely different language from another country but even slang that certain age groups have the sociologist might not understand and note correctly. Those are the few I can think of as to reasons why sociologists don’t do more field research

I really enjoyed reading this article, in my opinion it is very difficult to create field experiments. The setting is very important it affects the way people will react to the issue presented. For example the article states people reacted differently when they witnessed Caucasian adolescents vandalizing a car versus African Americans. One person called the police on the Caucasian's while ten people called the police on African Americans. People would view this as racism, this is why field experiments are so difficult to produce.

Sociologists don't do more field researches because of the requirements of the research. As Bradley Wright stated, conducting a field research based on religion would be difficult because he can not just assign religions to people. Field research can also cause a upset in the area in which the research is being conducted.

Dr. Pih,
I believe field experiments are more effective than taking it to the lab. I believe the lab is judged off of scenarios that are possible but, field experiments are first hand to a study. Bradley Wright talks about the racism in a predominately white area and the study of only one person calling the police because the white teens were vandalizing a car and twelve were called when the black teens were doing it. I do not agree that this is a stereotypical racist situation. What we need to also take into consideration was the time. There is a big difference if the white teens were tested at 8am and the black at 12pm. Also the fact that it was in a predominately white area. If it was in a predominately black area I think the outcome would have definitely been different.

Field experiments are very useful in getting unbiased results. You can gain information without the exerimental groups knowing. I think many sociologists do not do field studies because it is hard to test out sociological topics in the field. Also some of the data that developes from field studies is very controversial, particuary in the study of racism. I believe that many sociologist are cautious when it comes to these sorts of things.

This article made me think about the society I live in while i was reading, i predicted that more people would call the police if they were african American and thats what actually happened in this experiment. ALthough i wasn't able to watch either one of the videos, i was still able to get a brood look at what was going on here. In society people usually assume what happens because of your race and some people don't call themselves racist but some might not be aware to it. This experiment would be more accurate if it was placed in an african american setting as well, that way we can compare the results and see if it is just the area or racism.

Dr. Pih
I think that a racism is comes from the stereotype. As matter of fact, it really depends on the person's personality. However, people judge others by their colors, rather than their personality and the background. so that in my opinion, the idea of field experiments seem very amazing because we can really figure out the real factual information.

Racism is not much of a problem today as it was in the past, but the reality is that, it still exist in our society, and it can be found in the hearts of men and women who cannot seem to let go of it.

Some of the reasons why sociologists don't do more field experiments because people would think that they are racist. Especially if they are trying to find out more about a certain race. This could offend a lot of people.

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