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Experimental Approaches

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Course details
Digital Social Research Option Paper Group A; Hilary Term
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Experimental methodologies have long been a mainstay of the natural science disciplines, and have become popular in some social science disciplines, such as social psychology, economics and more recently political science.

There remain marked differences across disciplines in terms of the use of field and laboratory experiments; incentivization; deception and other ethical issues; and the use of scenarios and games, but in general the experimental method is widely accepted as offering exciting potential to make causal inference and even to feed in to policy-making and practice, particularly in the UK through the work of the Behavioural Insights team.

The value and applicability of these approaches is relatively new to research examining the psychological, political, and economic dimensions of human life online. Online spaces provide a range of novel experimental contexts from which a wealth of data can be gleaned and established theories tested in new and interesting ways. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that this form of experimental work also presents a number of pitfalls unique to online research that temper and potentially undermine the validity and causal inferences that may be drawn by researchers.

The main goals of this module are three-fold:

  1. To familiarise students with philosophy of science and theory undergirding the experimental method and the basic elements of experimental design, including an exploration of variations across disciplines in terms of the sort of experiments that are carried out;
  2. Understand the logistical and ethical challenges of the experimental method, and in particular to understand strengths and weaknesses of the state-of-the-art scientific approaches used in the social science experiments focused on online settings;
  3. Develop student competence proposing a novel and viable online experimental design.


This module will prepare students to interpret and practice the experimental method, an increasingly important area of social science research in general, and in particular a valuable way to understand how characteristics of online environments influence individual behaviour. It will also illustrate to them how experimentation may be incorporated into policy design, thereby enriching any policy research or analysis they carry out in their future working lives.