What is the state of experimental social science?

This is a genuine question: What is the state of experimental social science?

What I know of experimental social science comes largely from Vernon Smith and his colleagues from George Mason and Chapman Universities. From the way the topic was discussed I assumed the field was in its infancy and limited to a few economic departments. During my undergrad I recall my professors discussing a job candidate that specialized in experimental methods, but from their tone it was clear they were skeptical of what could be learned from it. Back then I could hardly believe that experimental methods were being toyed with in the other social sciences.

It was only about a year ago that I learned from a friend that psychology had its own experimental methods movement. From what I could make out experimental psychology was being developed independent of experimental economics. Even then I assumed that experimental methods were on the fringe.

I am genuinely surprised then to find that experimental methods exist in political science and, from what I can make up, part of the mainstream research. As NoL readers may know I recently started my PhD in Political Science at UC Riverside. My training up till now has been in Economics. What I find interesting about the political science literature is that it seems heavily influenced by the experimental psychology field, but not experimental economics.

Here is one of the better examples of experimental political science I’ve come across. In this paper participants role play as bureaucrats who have to distribute $1,500 in funds between two applicants of various race and work ethic, in addition to having the choice of reducing the government deficit. Note the citations include several psychology journals, but no mention of the economics literature.

Also note that, unlike experimental economics, there is no pay off for acting in a given way. This I think is a major error since the researchers are trying to measure degree of racism, but in this experiment there is no ‘cost’ to being racist. In real life though racism comes at a cost. If you’re racist you lose out not on potential trade partners, but potential friends and even lovers. Anyway;

So I ask, especially to those of you with backgrounds outside economics, what is the state of experimental methods in your field? Is it considered mainstream or is it a novel technique? Has it been influenced by experimental methods in another social science? And if so, which one?

3 thoughts on “What is the state of experimental social science?

  1. The department of sociology at Stanford had a a very active set experimental research programs back in the late 70s and early 80s when I was a PhD. It’s not my cup of tea, I’m an organizational sociologist interested in other topics and other methodologies. However I spent my obligatory year as a research assistant working in the lab because I knew it would be my only chance to add that to my methodological toolkit. I know that the lab still gets a lot of use.


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