Field Researcn. Field research is the study of social life in its natural setting: observing and interviewing people where they live, work, and play. Some kinds of behavior can be studied best by "being there"; a fuller understanding can be developed through observations, face-to-face discussions, and participation in events. Researchers use these methods to generate qualitative data: observations that are best described verbally rather than numerically.
Sociologists who are interested in observing social interaction as it occurs may use participant observation — collecting systematic observations while being part of the activities of the group they are studying. Participant observation generates more "inside" information than simply asking questions or observing from the outside.
Another approach to field research is the ethnography — a detailed study of the life and activities of a group of people by researchers who may live with that group over a period of years (Feagin, Orum, and Sjoberg, 1991). Unlike participant observation, ethnographic studies usually take place over a longer period of time. For example, the sociologist Elijah Anderson (1990) conducted a study in two areas of a major city — one African American and low-income,
the other racially mixed but becoming increasingly middle-to upper-income and white. As Anderson spent numerous hours talking and listening to the people on the streets, he was able to document changes in residents' everyday lives brought about by increased drug abuse, loss of jobs, decreases in city services, and the eventual exodus of middle-income people from the central city.
Experiments. An experiment is a carefully designed situation in which the researcher studies trie impact of certain variables on subjects' attitudes or behavior.
Experiments are designed to create "real-life" situations, ideally under controlled circumstances, in which the influence of different variables can be modified and measured. Conventional experiments require that subjects be divided into two groups: an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group contains the subjects who are exposed to an independent variable (the experimental condition) to study its effect on them.
The control group contains the subjects who are not exposed to the independent variable.
Researchers may use experiments when they want to demonstrate that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between variables. In order to show that a change in one variable causes a change in another, three conditions must be satisfied:
(1) A correlation between the two variables must be shown to exist (correlation exists when two variables are assoeiated more frequently than could be expected by chance),
(2) the independent variable must have occurred prior to the dependent variable, and
(3) any change in the dependent variable must not have been due to an extraneous variable—one outside the stated hypothesis.
The major advantage of an experiment is the researcher's control over the environment and the ability to isolate the experimental variable. Since many experiments require relatively little time and money and can be conducted with limited numbers of subjects, it is possible for researchers to replicate an experiment several times by using different groups of subjects (Babbie, 1995). Perhaps the greatest limitation of experiments is that they are artificial: Social processes that are set up by researchers or that take place in a laboratory setting are often not the same as real-life occurrences.