Experimental Methods in the Social Sciences

NOTE: Usually taught every fall semester.

Spring 2023: SOC 391 / SOC 681

The course is currently being taught as a joint undergraduate / graduate class. The first 8 weeks of the semester consist of a 3-credit hour graduate level course on experimental design. The undergraduate course also consists of participating as a research assistant in the Kernan Experimental Social Science lab for the last 8 weeks of the semester.

Course Description

Causality is of fundamental interest to most social, behavioral, and health scientists. Theories and theoretically motivated research questions are almost always causal in nature. While many statistical advances have aided our ability to test for causality in observational data, experiments remain the “gold standard'” for causal inference. Primarily because of experiments' unrivaled ability to test for causality, use of experimental studies has grown rapidly in many social science fields such as economics, political science, and sociology. 

Some experimental traditions, such as laboratory experiments, have a long and influential history within many fields. Newer methods such as field, audit, and survey experiments offer exciting possibilities to test causal ideas in newer and more diverse settings and with more diverse samples. The class will begin by covering fundamental experimental methodology and laboratory experiments. Next, we will learn about experiments conducted outside of the laboratory: from conducting audit studies on hiring managers to fielding survey experiments in nationally representative samples (and everything in between).  

The first 8 weeks of the course focus on experimental methodology and design; i.e. what types of experiments are possible and how to design and conduct methodologically sound studies. The course is meant to be practical, teaching concrete best practices rather than only abstract concepts. In addition, we will read exemplar research articles throughout the semester alongside methodological pieces, illustrating the diverse and contemporary topics that are currently being studied with experimental methods.

An additional goal of the course is to introduce you to the experimental research that is currently being conducted at Purdue. Most of our Friday class periods for the first 8 weeks will be devoted to guest speakers. We will read one of their published or in-progress articles using an experimental study and then discuss the study and their research with them during the Friday class.

The second 8 weeks of the course focus on applied research in the Kernan Experimental Social Science lab (BRNG 2208). We will learn about the lab and the studies being conducted by faculty and graduate students this semester. After training each student on the studies, each student will act as a research assistant conducting the experimental studies in the lab. In addition, we will have a weekly lab meeting each Friday where we discuss the studies’ progress, present results from the studies, and workshop ideas for new experiments. The class is hands on, and each student will get practical research experience conducting experimental studies.

Prior Course Materials

See all course materials from the last time the course was taught: