There have been a lot of T.V. productions which have run ‘social experiments’ in recent years. This post simply outlines a few examples of these and some of the strengths and limitations of social experiments run by media companies. Channel 4 seems to be the main outlet for these experiments….
Some (relatively) recent examples of televised social experiments
Channel 4’s Return to Eden featured 23 people heading to an island in the Scottish Highlands for a year to see what happened if a small community of people ‘started again’. They had sufficient resources to last the year, so I guess the experiment was just about of seeing how people would interact when their economic basics are sorted out.
The show wasn’t a great success: after the first four episodes (aired in spring 2016), viewing figures slumped to 800 000, and the show only returned in July 2017 as a ‘retrospective’, now called ‘Eden Lost’.
The experiment wasn’t a great success – 13 people left before the experiment ended, with only 10 left at the end. I just hope none the candidates had hopes of becoming a Fogle 2.0 who managed to segway into his media career after the BBC’s Castaway 2000.
This is much less ‘media manufactured’ than the example of Eden above: more of a ‘proper’ experiment with just cameras being present.
The point of the experiment is to measure the effects of having children present over the course of a few weeks on the physical and mental health of elderly people.
In the experiment variables such as reaction time and mobility of the elderly residents are measured, then the home is effectively turned into a day care nursery for four year olds, with the old-people taking an active role in their day-care, and after a few weeks, their health is tested again.
The results are remarkable!
This sort of thing is sociology gold-dust – a school in the Isle of White is turned into a gender-neutral zone…
Some strengths and limitations of televised social experiments
Obviously each of these social experiments have their own individual strengths and limitations, but there are also some generic strengths and limitations which stem from the fact media companies are involved in the production of these experiments.
- There are some obvious practical strengths to the social researcher – you can just watch the show and relay the results, this is secondary data after all.
- There are also some obvious ethical advantages to the social researcher – the respondents have given their consent to the company involved in making, so in effect the ethics of the research are down to the media company – there are no obvious additional ethical problems which might be a barrier to research simply by using what material is made available by the media company.
- Usually in terms of representativeness, media corps are pretty good at representing a range of classes, genders and ethnicities in these experiments.
- Probably the biggest problem of televised social experiments is that the primary reason for making them is to make a profit, and to do this they need to be entertaining – thus the kinds of topics chosen will not necessarily be those of interest to social researchers.
- The ‘entertainment problem’ also comes into play where ‘controlling variables’ and testing hypotheses are concerned – entertainment trumps the kinds of questions asked and the shape of the experiment
- When it comes to validity, there are also lot of potential problems – you only get to see what the media company wants you to see. The Hawthorne Effect might also apply – respondents may act differently because they know they are on T.V.
- Finally, in terms of reliability, this could be difficult because there’s a chance that people doing any repeat experiments will have seen previous experiments, which could influence future results.
So all in all, while these televised social experiments may be entertaining (if that’s your thing), it might well be that they give us very little valid or reliable data about how people interact in the real world.