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Experimental approaches for social research

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Course Information


Social questions are not traditionally studied using experimental methods; indeed, the lack of prominence given to the experimental method is one of the features often said to distinguish social science from the biological or physical sciences. However, there are approaches available to the social scientist that can fairly be described as experimental. These include the economic games of experimental economics, to the ‘experiments in the field’ of experimental ethnography, the natural experiments that have high evidential value in public health, and large randomized controlled trials increasingly used in public policy and development economics. This one-day course explores these various different types of experiment. It emphasises the practical and creative aspects of designing experiments, and the ethical and interpretative issues they throw up. It will draw examples from a wide range of research areas. The aim is to give participants a clear sense of what kinds of experimental options they might have, and how they could devise novel experimental approaches of their own, even at the small scale and with modest resources. Each session of the course will mix presentations, group discussions, and practical exercises

Some experience of quantitative data analysis

The course covers:

  • The various definitions of experiment and the ways experimental approaches have been used in social research
  • Relationships between experimental approaches and approaches of other kinds (e.g. surveys, ethnography, interviews)
  • Principles of experimental design
  • Ethical and interpretative issues arising from experimental research


By the end of the course participants will:

  • Understand what an experimental approach is and the options for experimental research available to them
  • Have worked through a number of key examples of experimental approaches to social science
  • Be equipped to design and critique experiments for themselves
  • Considered the ethical issues involved in experimental work
  • Have reflected on how data gained through experimental research might be related to those gathered in other ways

Course Code


Course Date

20th November 2017

Places Available


Course Leader

Professor Daniel Nettle, Gillian Pepper, University of Newcastle

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