The Importance of Sleep for Learning…..

I’ve recently read an excellent book called ‘Why We Sleep‘ by Mathew Walker. This book is based on decades of personal research into sleep carried out by Walker and others and references hundreds of studies on the benefits of sleep.

Sleep both before and after learning improves memory retention – this is because during NREM sleep, the brain moves what is stored in the short-term memory to the long-term memory – not only does it store new information during NREM sleep, at the same time it ‘clears’ the short-term memory so that it’s refreshed for new learning and memorisation to take place.

Sleep can also help with ‘riding a bike’ type skills…. Training and strengthening muscles can help you better execute a skilled memory routine.

Two experiments that demonstrate the importance of sleep:

Walker’s team recruited a group of healthy young adults and randomly divided them into a nap

At noon, all participants had to learn one hundred face-name pairs intended to tax the hippocampus, the short-term memory storage site. Both groups performed at comparable levels.

Soon after, the nap group took a 90 minute nap, while the non-nap group played board games or surfed the internet.

The two groups then underwent a second ‘face-name’ pair learning task. The nap group’s performance improved slightly, the non-nap group’s performance deteriorated.

The nap group had a 20% learning advantage over the non-nap group in the second round of testing.

Interestingly these findings are remarkably similar to one of the first sleep experiments ever conducted…. in 1924 Jenkins and Dallabach got two groups of participants to learn a list of verbal facts. Researchers then tracked how quickly participants forgot these facts over an 8 hour period – one group slept, the other stayed awake – there was a 20-40% memory retention benefit gained by sleeping compared to staying awake. Has been repeated numerous times and concerned.

Lessons from these experiments….

  1. If you want to study effectively, get a good nights sleep.
  2. Cramming when you’re short on sleep doesn’t work.
  3. Our education system, which insists on early starts for teenagers who are ‘hard-wired’ to want to go to bed later and get up later, is working against ‘the genetics of effective learning’.

Further Links

The two experiments above are probably good examples of laboratory experiments with reasonably high ecological validity – at least in the sense that the quality of sleep once your asleep is going to be the same wherever you are.

For more advice on how to revise effectively, please see this post!

*Walker covers what is meant by a ‘good’ night’s sleep – it’s basically your usual 8 hours ish, but 8 hours actual sleep, which will probably require a longer ‘sleep window’.




The Steps of Quantitative Research

Quantitative research is a strategy which involves the collection of numerical data, a deductive view of the relationship between theory and research, a preference for a natural science approach (and for positivism in particular), and an objectivist conception of social reality.

It is important to note that quantitative research thus means more than the quantification of aspects of social life, it also has a distinctive epistemological and ontological position which distinguishes it from more qualitative research.

An ideal-typical outline of the stages of quantitative research:

quantitative research stages

1. Theory 

The fact that quantitative research starts off with theory signifies the broadly deductive approach to the relationship between theory and research in this tradition. The sociological theory most closely associated with this approach is Functionalism, which is a development of the positivist origins of sociology.

2. Hypothesis 

It is common outlines of the main steps of quantitative research to suggest that a hypothesis is deduced from the theory and is tested.

However, a great deal of quantitative research does not entail the specification of a hypothesis, and instead theory acts loosely as a set of concerns in relation to which social researcher collects data. The specification of hypotheses to be tested is particularly likely to be found in experimental research but is often found as well in survey research, which is usually based on cross-sectional design.

3. Research design 

The next step entails the selection of a research design which has implications for a variety of issues, such as the external validity of findings and researchers’ ability to impute causality to their findings.

4. Operationalising concepts

Operationalising concepts is a process where the researcher devises measure of the concepts which she wishes to investigate. This typically involves breaking down abstract sociological concepts into more specific measures which can be easily understood by respondents. For example, ‘social class’ can be operationalied into ‘occupation’ and ‘strength of religious believe’ can be measured by using a range of questions about ‘ideas about God’ and ‘attendance at religious services’.

5. selection of a research site or sites

With laboratory experiments, the site will already be established, in field experiments, this will involve the selection of a field-site or sites, such as a school or factory, while with survey research, site-selection may be more varied. Practical and ethical factors will be a limiting factor in choice of research sites.

6. Selection of respondents

Step six involves ‘choosing a sample of participants’ to take part in the study – which can involve any number of sampling techniques, depending on the hypothesis, and practical and ethical factors. If the hypothesis requires comparison between two different groups (men and women for example), then the sample should reflect this.

Step six may well precede step five – if you just wish to research ‘the extent of teacher labelling in schools in London’, then you’re pretty much limited to finding schools in London as your research site(s).

7. Data collection

Step seven,  is what most people probably think of as ‘doing research’.  In experimental research this is likely to involve pre-testing respondents, manipulating the independent variable for the experimental group and then post-testing respondents. In cross-sectional research using surveys, this will involve interviewing the sample members by structured-interview or using a pre-coded questionnaire. For observational research this will involve watching the setting and behaviour of people and then assigning categories to each element of behaviour.

8. Processing data

This means transforming information which has been collected into ‘data’. With some information this is a straightforward process – for example, variables such as ‘age’, or ‘income’ are already numeric.

Other information might need to be ‘coded’ – or transformed into numbers so that it can be analysed. Codes act as tags that are placed on data about people which allow the information to be processed by a computer.

9. Data analysis

In step nine, analysing data, the researcher uses a number of statistical techniques to look for significant correlations between variables, to see if one variable has a significant effect on another variable.

The simplest type of technique is to organise the relationship between variables into graphs, pie charts and bar charts, which give an immediate ‘intuitive’ visual impression of whether there is a significant relationship, and such tools are also vital for presenting the results of one’s quantitative data analysis to others.

In order for quantitative research to be taken seriously, analysis needs to use a number of accepted statistical techniques, such as the Chi-squared test, to test whether there is a relationship between variables. This is precisely the bit that many sociology students will hate, but has become much more common place in the age of big data!

10. Findings and conclusions 

On the basis of the analysis of the data, the researcher must interpret the results of the analysis. It is at this stage that the findings will emerge: if there is a hypothesis, is it supported? What are the implications of the findings for the theoretical ideas that formed the background of the research?

11. Writing up Findings 

Finally, in stage 11, the research must be written up. The research will be writing for either an academic audience, or a client, but either way, a write-up must convince the audience that the research process has been robust, that data is as valid, reliable and representative as it needs to be for the research purposes, and that the findings are important in the context of already existing research.

Once the findings have been published, they become part of the stock of knowledge (or ‘theory’ in the loose sense of the word) in their domain. Thus, there is a feedback loop from step eleven back up to step one.

The presence of an element of both deductivism (step two) and inductivism is indicative of the positivist foundations of quantitative research.


Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods

Social Experiments on T.V.

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

Return to Eden and Eden Lost

Eden social experiment.jpg

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.

The Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds

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!

No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?

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.

Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) – The Imitative Aggressive Experiment 

This classic example of a laboratory experiment suggests that children learn aggressive behaviour through observation – it is relevant to the Crime and Deviance module, and lends support to the idea that exposure to violence at home (or in the media) can increase aggressive and possibly violent behaviour in real life.


Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) aimed to find out if children learnt aggressive behaviour by observing adults acting in an aggressive manner.

Their sample consisted of 36 boys and 36 girls from the Stanford University Nursery School aged between 3 to 6 years old.

Stage one – making some of the children watch violence 

In this stage of the experiment, children were divided into three groups of 24 (12 boys and 12 girls in each group), and then individually put through one of the following three processes. 

  • The first group of children watched an adult actor behaving aggressively towards a toy called a ‘Bobo doll’. The adults attacked the Bobo doll in a distinctive manner – they used a hammer in some cases, and in others threw the doll in the air and shouted “Pow, Boom”.
  • The second group  were exposed to a non-aggressive adult actor who played in a quiet and subdued manner for 10 minutes (playing with a tinker toy set and ignoring the bobo-doll).
  • The final group were used as a control group and not exposed to any model at all.

Stage two – frustrating the children and observing their reactions

The children were then taken to a room full of nice of toys, but told that they were not allowed to play with them, in order to ‘frustrate them’, and then taken onto another room full of toys which consisted of a number of ‘ordinary toys’, as well as a ‘bobo doll’ and a hammer. Children were given a period of time to play with these toys while being observed through a two way mirror.

The idea here was to see if those children who had witnessed the aggressive behaviour towards the doll were more likely to behave aggressively towards it themselves.


To cut a long story short, the children who had previously seen the adults acting aggressively towards the bobo doll were more likely to behave aggressively towards to the bobo doll in stage two of the experiment.

A further interesting finding is that boys were more likely to act aggressively than girls.

The findings support Bandura’s ‘social learning theory’ –  that is, children learn social behaviour such as aggression through the process of observation – through watching the behaviour of another person.


Strengths of the bobo-doll experiment 

  • Variables were well controlled, so it effectively established cause and effect relationships (see the link below for more details)
  • It has good reliability – standardised procedures mean it is easy to repeat.

Limitations of this laboratory experiment

  • This study has very low ecological validity – this is a very artificial form of ‘violence’ – an adult using a hammer on a doll (rather than a human) is nothing like the kind of real life aggressive behaviour a child might be exposed to, thus can we generalise these findings to wider social life?
  • Cumberbatch (1990) found that children who had not played with a Bobo Doll before were five times as likely to imitate the aggressive behaviour than those who were familiar with it; he claims that the novelty value of the doll makes it more likely that children will imitate the behaviour.
  • The effects of exposure to aggression were measured immediately, this experiment tells us nothing about the long-term effects of a single exposure to aggressive behaviour.
  • There are ethical problems with the study – exposing the children to aggressive behaviour and ‘frustrating them’ may have resulted in long term harm to their well-being.

Related Posts 

Laboratory Experiments – advantages and disadvantages

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – is the other ‘classic’ psychology experiment which usually gets wheeled out for use in sociology.

Further Sources 

This post from Simply Psychology offers a much more detailed account of Bandura’s Imitative Aggressive experiment – NB if you’re an A-level sociology student, you don’t really need to know that much detail for this experiment, this link is just for further reading.

You might also like this video which summarises the Bobo Doll Experiment – although bewarned, it’s a bit cringeworthy

Experiments in Sociology – Revision Notes

Definitions, key features and the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of laboratory and field experiments applied to sociology (and psychology). Also covers key terms related to experiments

Experiments – The Basics: Definitions/ Key Features

  • Experiments aim to measure the effect which one or more independent variables have on a dependent variable.
  • The aim is to isolate and measure as precisely as possible the exact effect independent variables have on dependent variables.
  • Experiments typically aim to test a ‘hypothesis’ – a prediction about how one variable will effect another.
  • There are two main types* of experimental method: The Laboratory experiment, the field experiment and the comparative method.
    • Laboratory Experiments take place in an artificial, controlled environment such as a laboratory.
    • Field Experiments – take place in a real world context such as a school or a hospital.

Advantages of Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – The controlled conditions of laboratory experiments allow researchers to isolate variables: you can precisely measure the exact effect of one thing on another.
  • Theoretical – You can establish cause and effect relationships.
  • Theoretical – You can collect ‘objective’ knowledge – about how facts ‘out there’ affect individuals.
  • Theoretical – Good Reliability because it is easy to replicate the exact same conditions.
  • Theoretical – Good Reliability because of the high level of detachment between the researcher and the respondent.
  • Practical – Easy to attract funding because of the prestige of science.
  • Practical – Take place in one setting so researchers can conduct research like any other day-job – no need to chase respondents.
  • Ethical – Most laboratory experiments seek to gain informed consent, often a requirement to get funding.
  • Ethical – Legality – lab experiments rarely ask participants to do anything illegal.
  • Ethical – Findings benefit society – both Milgram and Zimbardo would claim the shocking findings of their research outweigh the harms done to respondents.

Disadvantages of Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – They are reductionist: human behaviour cannot be explained through simple cause and effect relationships (people are not ‘puppets’).
  • Theoretical – Laboratory experiments lack external validity – the artificial environment is so far removed from real-life that the results tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life.
  • Theoretical – The Hawthorne Effect may further reduce validity – respondents may act differently just because they know they are part of an experiment.
  • Theoretical – They are small scale and thus unrepresentative.
  • Practical – It is impractical to observe large scale social processes in a laboratory – you cannot get whole towns, let alone countries of people into the small scale setting of a laboratory.
  • Practical – Time – Small samples mean you will need to conduct consecutive experiments on small groups if you want large samples, which will take time
  • Ethical – Deception and lack of informed consent – it is often necessary to deceive subjects as to the true nature of the experiment so that they do not act differently. Links to the Hawthorne Effect.
  • Ethical – Some specific experiments have resulted in harm to respondents – in the Milgram experiment for example.
  • Ethical – Interpretivists may be uncomfortable with the unequal relationships between researcher and respondent – the researcher takes on the role of the expert, who decides what is worth knowing in advance of the experiment.

Advantages of Field Experiments over Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – They generally have better validity than lab experiments because they take place in real life settings
  • Theoretical – Better external validity – because they take place in normally occurring, real-world social settings.
  • Practical – Larger scale settings – you can do field experiments in schools or workplaces, so you can observe large scale social processes, which isn’t possible with laboratory experiments.
  • Practical – a researcher can ‘set up’ a field experiment and let it run for a year, and then come back later.

The relative disadvantages of Field Experiments

  • Theoretical – It is not possible to control variables as closely as with laboratory experiments – because it’s impossible to observe respondents 100% of the time.
  • Theoretical – Reliability is weaker – because it’s more difficult to replicate the exact context of the research again.
  • Theoretical – The Hawthorne Effect (or Experimental Effect) may reduce the validity of results.
  • Practical Problems – access is likely to be more of a problem with lab experiments. Schools and workplaces might be reluctant to allow researchers in.
  • Ethical Problems – As with lab experiments – it is often possible to not inform people that an experiment is taking place in order for them to act naturally, so the issues of deception and lack of informed consent apply here too, as does the issue of harm.

Experiments – Key Terms Summary

Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

Dependent Variable – this is the object of the study in the experiment, the variable which will (possibly) be effected by the independent variables.

Independent variables – The variables which are varied in an experiment – the factors which the experimenter changes in order to measure the effect they have on the dependent variable.

Extraneous variables – Variables which are not of interest to the researcher but which may interfere with the results of an experiment

Experimental group – The group under study in the investigation.

Control group – The group which is similar to the study group who are held constant. Following the experiment the experimental group can be compared to the control group to measure the extent of the impact (if any) of the independent variables.

You should also know about natural experiments/ the comparative method –involves comparing two or more societies or groups which are similar in some respects but varied in others, and looking for correlations.  

Related Posts:

These are the more in-depth posts…

Experiments in sociology – an introduction

Laboratory experiments in sociology

Field experiments in sociology

Experiments in Alternative Living (1)

The average twenty something in the UK will spend £263K on housing over the next 32 years of their life, and many will spend considerably more, which is, let’s face it, an enormous sum of money.

What I find deeply offensive about this astronomical figure is that there are a few brave souls currently engaged in what you might call ‘experiments in alternative living’ which demonstrate that it really is possible to live well without mortgaging your life away – for example, the house below cost £3K and took only 10 days to build.


Given this, I think normal housing strategies are in need of serious reconsideration, and to this end this post provides a number of experiments in alternative housing options which means you don’t have to spend £300K on housing yourself over the next 3 decades!

The Housing Norm in the UK (which is just NUTS!)

According to this is money, a typical first-time buyer who buys a £151,000 home with a £121,000 repayment mortgage over 25 years will pay back £191,600,  calculated at 4% interest. This works out at £638 a month or £7664 a year, which is equivalent to 9 years worth of earnings on the median-salary. Of these repayments, interest accounts for £191, 600 – £121, 000 = £70, 000.

Previous to buying their first property,  A recent report by Santander found that the average person spends 7.4 years renting paying an average monthly rent of £474, totalling £42, 000,

Combined with the £191.6k loan repayment and the £30K assumed deposit in the scenario above this gives a total 32 year average spend on basic housing costs of £263 600. Obviously, if you are twenty-something, you have the choice to follow a similar path-to-property ownership and just settle for paying out an overall average of £600/ month for 32 years.

Obviously you have the choice to follow a similar path-to-property ownership and just settle for paying out an overall average of £600/ month for 32 years. Or, like me, you might think this is totally nuts and consider doing all, or any of the following in order to reduce this figure…

  1. Live with your parents for the rest of your life
  2. Squat someone else’s second (or third/ fourth/ fifth etc….) property
  3. Live in a van
  4. Buy some land and live on it without planning permission
  5. Set up a low impact eco-village

A key part of the sociological imagination is to make the familiar seem strange and to wake people up to how odd ‘normal’ actually is. In the case of housing,  I think it’s very strange that so many of us just go along with paying so much for something that really needn’t cost so much.

This post is really just about raising awareness that are alternatives to this crazy mortgage debt-cycle, and the above five alternatives are all viable, even if challenging….

One –  Live with your parents – until they die.

According to the Office for National Statistics, A total of 3.3 million 20- to 34-year-olds lived with their parents in 2013, the highest number since it started keeping records in 1996.

While the prospect of a 34 year old still living with their parents may sound sad, it is good for your finances. Taking the average rent of £5688/ year, if someone were to live with their parents from the age of 20-34, they could potentially save £80 000, and that’s before accumulations on savings are factored in, and for the ultimate savings on housing costs, you could just live with your parents until they die, which is what 42% of current renters are waiting for in order to be able to get their foot on that first rung of the property ladder.

Two – Squat

Squatting means to unlawfully occupy an uninhabited building or settle on a piece of land.

Suatting homelesss solution.pngUntil recently squatting in England and Wales was generally a civil matter, not a criminal matter, However, in 2012  Squatting was technically criminalised by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, section 144 of the LASPO made it a criminal offence to trespass in residential properties with the intention of living there.

However, a few test cases have revealed that if the police find you squatting a building, charge you with squatting and you plead not-guilty, it is actually nearly impossible for the prosecuters to prove that you were actually living in the building permanently.  Also, the law does not cover non-residential properties.

There are a few things you need to get right in order squat a property for any length of time –The squatter’s advisory service recommend the following –

  • You need to make sure you do not commit criminal damage to get into the property, and repair any such damage that someone else has done immediately after you take up occupation.
  • Always make sure somone is in the property, because if the property is vacant you can be evicted.
  • You should contact the utilities providors asap to prove that you intend to pay.
  • When the police turn up, do not give them entry, talk to them through the door, and finally research who the owner is so you know who you are up against when you go to court, and don’t expect them to be too happy about it the fact that you’re squatting their property.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many people squat in the UK exactly given that squatters don’t generally want to draw attention to themselves, but there are some high profile, political examples –  One of the most interesting being Grow Heathrow which was established in an abandoned market garden site in Sipson, one of the villages due to be completely tarmaced to make way for a third runway at Heathrow. Over the past four years the site has played host to a wide range of political gatherings for groups such as: UK Uncut, Climate Camp, Reclaim the Fields, and The Transition Network, so you would need a certain amount of subcultural capital to fit in to this network, but if you can embed yourself comfortably into that sort of thing, then the payback is free accomodation, and probably food too.

Also of interest is this site – Made Possible by Squatting which is an exhibition from  September 2013 documenting stories of how squatting has benefitted the lives of individuals and communities in London- against the backdrop of the government’s attempts to criminalise squatting.

Three – Live in a Van

Admitedly this doesn’t seem to be a very popular option here in the UK, so firstly to America for some inspiration….  To Simplify is a blog by someone called Glen, whose been living a mobile life for over 5 years in a heavily converted 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon, which he describes as the closest thing to a home he’s ever owned. The blog simply documents Glen’s life on the open road, and he also details his total van conversion, from totally gutting the original van and then installing a whole range of new features – not least of all the engine and a solar electricity system. I particularly like this picture in which Glen’s parked up with other, more typical American mobile home dwellers – it sort of sums up his philosophy.

van 1

Bringing it back across the Atlantic, El Pocito is a nice little blog which, among many other things of an alternative nature, outlines the experience of two art teachers, originally from the UK who spent 9 years travelling through Spain and Portugal in their converted van. The site offers some excellent advice on the realities of van-living on the continent.

Campervan Life is a web site devoted to providing advice on buying, converting and living in a camper van, set up by a guy called Darren who bought a cheap Mercedes Sprinter (£1000 in 2006), learnt how to convert it on-the-job with no prior experience or any significant background in DIY and then travelled around Europe in it for 9 months. He lists the ‘van-travel’ related costs of his trip at under £3K, and although he doesn’t appear to include costs of the conversion can’t imagine it would have cost more than £1000, which means that in total Darren had almost a year of comfortable living and travel for under £5K, which is cheaper than the average rent in the UK.

While there are no doubt hundreds of people who live in vans long-term in the UK, but hardly any of them document their experience, hardly surprising given the degree of prejudice against ‘travellers’. The only example I could find was of a guy (who, incidentally has a job!) who’s put a few videos up on youtube outlining aspects of his life in a converted ambulance. In this clip he’s talking about his ‘split charge relay’ while smoking a king size roll up (contents undisclosed)

Incidentally, living in a van may sound like it’s an extreme strategy for saving money, and possibly only for hippies, and you’d be forgiven for making this mistake given that one of the first search returns for ‘living in a van uk’ takes you to a forum called ‘UK HIPPY’, but there are even members of the relatively conservative caravan club who have lived in their caravans long-term, combining this with either owning a small no-frills apartment, or house-sitting.

Four – Buy some land and just build without planning permission

In eco-circles, the best known example of someone who has actually done this is Tony Wrench and his partner, who built their own low-impact roundhouse for about £3K in 10 days (picture above). Actually, this may be the only example of a couple who have managed to do this and get away with gaining retrospective planning permission, others, such as the couple who built the beautiful hobbit-house below don’t seem to have been so lucky.

Shortly to be torn down because local planners judged it to be 'out of touch with the countryside'
Shortly to be torn down because local planners judged it to be ‘out of touch with the countryside’

For this reason, although this particular strategy is the one I intend to adopt at some point in the future, you might be better off going for option five…..

Five  – Set up a low-impact community

There aren’t very many low impact communities in the UK, this is a very emergent phenomenon, but one example of a group who have managed to get temporary planning for their dwellings is Tinker’s Bubble, a community of 11 adults and 2 children based in Somerset who live on 28 acres of land in self-built houses, grow most of their own food and are fossil-fuel free. I don’t have too many about the economics of the place, but the dwellings most of them live in seem to be of Tony Wrench’s low impact design and the weekly contribution for food is only £20, so compared to the average mortgage-monkey, this represents a significant saving.

Alternative families.jpg

One of the most inspiring recent examples is that of Llammas. Based in Pembrokeshire, on about 75 acres of land, this is one of the few fully legitimate (in planning terms) eco-projects in the U.K. It combines the traditional smallholding model with the latest innovations in environmental design, green technology and permaculture. The ecovillage was granted planning permission in 2009 by the Welsh Government and is currently part-way through the construction phase. The dwellings being built here are more robust than those in Tinker’s Bubble, and thus more expensive, but over the course of a lifetime these individuals will save themselves well over a £100K per person compared to the average, and have a significantly higher quality of life into the bargain.

In conclusion

Although all of the above involve more hassle than the standard massive-mortgage route to home ownership, personally I think a little discomfort and risk is worth it given the injustice involved with said mortgage route – via which you pay tens of thousands of pounds to people who simply haven’t done anything to earn it.

Experiments in Sociology – An Introduction

Experiments aim to measure the effect which an independent variable (the ’cause’) has on a dependent variable (‘the effect’).

The key features of an experiment are control over variables, precise measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.

In order to establish cause and effect relationships, the independent variable is changed and the dependent variable is measured; all other variables (known as extraneous variables) are controlled in the experimental process.

Different types of experiment

There are three main types of experimental: The Laboratory experiment, the field experiment and the comparative method.

  • Laboratory Experiments take place in an artificial, controlled environment such as a laboratory
  • Field Experiments – take place in a real world context such as a school or a hospital.
  • The comparative method – involves comparing two or more similar societies or groups which are similar in some respects but varied in others, and looking for correlations.

The Key Features of the Experiment

It’s easiest to explain what an experiment is by using an example from the natural sciences, so I’m going to explain about experiments further using an example used from biology

NB – You do need to know about the scientific method for the second year sociology theory and methods part of the course ( for an overview of theories and methods click here), so this is still all necessary information. I’ll return to the use of laboratory and field experiments in sociology (/ psychology) later on…

An example to illustrate the key features of an experiment

If you wished to measure the precise effect temperature had on the amount* of tomatoes a tomato plant produced, you could design an experiment in which you took two tomato plants of the same variety, and grow them in the same greenhouse with same soil, the same amount of light, and the same amount of water (and everything else exactly the same), but grow them on different heat pads, so one is heated to 15 degrees, and the other 20 degrees (5 degrees difference between the two).

You would then collect the tomatoes from each plant at the same time of year** (say in September sometime) and weigh them (*weighing would be a more accurate way of measuring the amount of tomatoes rather than the number produced), the difference in weight between the two piles of tomatoes would give you the ‘effect’ of the 5 degree temperature difference.

You would probably want to repeat the experiment a number of times to ensure good reliability, and then average all the yields of tomatoes to come up with an average difference.

After, say, 1000 experiments you might reasonably conclude that if you grow tomatoes at 20 degrees rather than 15 degrees, each plant will give you 0.5 kg more tomatoes, thus the ’cause’ of the 5 degree temperature increase is 0.5 Kg more tomatoes per plant.

In the above example, the amount of tomatoes is the dependent variable, the temperature is the independent variable, and everything else (the water, nutrients, soil etc. which you control, or keep the same) are the extraneous variables.

** of course, you might get different results if you collected the tomatoes as they ripened, but for the sake of controlling extraneous variables, you would need to collect all the tomatoes at the same time.

The Role of Hypotheses in Experiments

Experiments typically start off with a hypothesis which is a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a specific, testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

The point of using a hypothesis is that it helps with accuracy, focussing the researcher in on testing the specific relationship between two variables precisely, it also helps with objectivity (see below).

Having collected the results from the above experiment, you might reasonably hypothesise that ‘a tomato plant grown at 25 degrees compared to 20 degrees will yield 0.5K.G. more tomatoes’ (in fact a proper hypothesis would probably be even tighter than this, but hopefully you get the gist).

You would then simply repeat the above experiment, but heating one plant to 20 degrees and the other to 25 degrees, repeat 1000 (or so times) and on the basis of your findings, you could either accept or reject and modify the hypothesis.

Experiments and Objectivity

A further key feature of experiments are that they are supposed to produce objective knowledge – that is they reveal cause and effect relationships between variables which exist independently of the observer, because the results gained should have been completely uninfluenced by the researcher’s own values.

In other words, somebody else observing the same experiment, or repeating the same experiment should get the same results. If this is the case, then we can say that we have some objective knowledge.

A final (quick) word on tomato experiments, and objective knowledge…

NB – the use of tomato plants is not an idle example to illustrate the key features of the experiment – nearly everyone eats tomatoes (unless you’re the minority of Ketchup and Dolmio abstainers) – and so there’s a lot of profit in producing tomatoes, so I imagine that hundred of millions, if not billions of dollars has been spent on researching what combinations of variables lead to the most tomatoes being grown per acre, with the least inputs…. NB there would have to be a lot of experiments because a lot of variables interact, such as type of tomato plant, altitude, wave length of light, soil type, pests and pesticide use, as well as all of the basic stuff such as heat, light, and water.

A woman picks tomatoes at a desert experimental farming greenhouse.

The importance of objective, scientific knowledge about what combination of variables has what effect on tomato production is important, because if I have this knowledge (NB I may need to pay an agricultural science college for it, but it is there!) I can establish a tomato farm and set up the exact conditions for maximum production, and predict with some certainty how many tomatoes I’ll end up with in a season…(assuming I’m growing under glass, where I can control everything).

In summary so far… the general advantages of the experimental method

  • It allows us to establish ’cause and effect relationships’ between variables.
  • It allows for the precise measurement of the relationship between variables, enabling us to make accurate predictions about how two things will interact in the future.
  • The researcher can remain relatively detached from the research process, so it allows for the collection of objective knowledge, independent of the subjective opinions of the researcher.
  • It has excellent reliability because controlled environments allow for the exact conditions of the research to be repeated and results tested.

Disadvantages of the experimental method/ why it may not be applicable to studying society as a whole or even individual humans…

  • There are so many variables ‘out there’ in the real world that it is impossible to control and measure them all.
  • Most social groups are too large to study scientifically, you can’t get a city into a laboratory to control all it’s variables, you couldn’t even do this with a field experiment.
  • Human beings have their own personal, emotionally charged reasons for acting, which often they don’t know themselves, so they are impossible to measure in any objective way.
  • Human beings have consciousness and so don’t just react in a predictable way to external stimuli: they think about things, make judgements and act accordingly, so it’s impossible to predict human behaviour.
  • There are also ethical concerns with treating humans as ‘research subjects’ rather than equal partners in the research process.

June 2017 – In the middle of updating this, I promise I’ll get onto experiments in sociology shortly!

Experiments – Key Terms

Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

Dependent Variable – this is the object of the study in the experiment, the variable which will (possibly) be effected by the independent variables.

Independent variables – The variables which are varied in an experiment – the factors which the experimenter changes in order to measure the effect they have on the dependent variable.

Extraneous variables – Variables which are not of interest to the researcher but which may interfere with the results of an experiment

Experimental group – The group under study in the investigation.

Control group – The group which is similar to the study group who are held constant. Following the experiment the experimental group can be compared to the control group to measure the extent of the impact (if any) of the independent variables.

Related Posts 

Laboratory experiments: definition, explanation, advantages and disadvantages

Field experiments: definition, explanation, advantages and disadvantages.

Useful Introductory Sources on Experiments

Simply Psychology – The Experimental Method