Example Answer for Question 5 Paper 1: A Level… | tutor2u Sociology
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Example Answer for Question 5 Paper 1: A Level Sociology, June 2017 (AQA)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA

Section B – Methods in Context: Q5 [20 marks]

By a field experiment, sociologists mean an experiment that is carried out within a natural social setting and which aims to control as many variables as possible (bearing in mind the importance of not artificially influencing the study). In the same way as with a laboratory experiment there is a control group and an experimental group upon whom the variables are tested. Positivist sociologists would favour the use of quantitative data as they are seeking to establish a cause-effect relationship between teacher labelling in classrooms and its effects on education. Because the data yielded from field experiments is quantitative it is seen from a theoretical perspective to be highly reliable and as such the sociologist is able to determine correlations between teacher labelling and the impact it has on the educational achievement of the pupils being labelled.

One advantage of using a field experiment to study the effects of teacher labelling (according to Item C) is the fact that it can be “conducted within a natural setting” rather than in an artificial laboratory environment. This could have a positive impact upon the validity of the study as both teachers and pupils are within a familiar social environment and it is possible for the researcher to control the variables to some extent to ensure consistency as classrooms are naturally a regulated environment. However there will still be some freedom which allows the researcher to observe natural behaviours (particularly if they carry out the experiment in a covert fashion) which allows a more valid picture of the effects of teacher labelling to be observed. 

However due to the closed nature of classrooms, the researcher would need to approach a gatekeeper in order to gain access to the natural classroom setting.  To help the researcher overcome issues relating to access they could approach the head teacher and gain informed consent as well as undergo a DBS check to work with children (this could be timely and costly) but this may have a negative impact on their research from an ethical perspective if they then went on to conceal their identity or the true nature of the research from either the pupils or the teachers participating as this would be an example of deception. To overcome this, the researcher could of course be honest with the participants but this raises the issue of impression management and social desirability as any participants that were aware of the presence of the researcher would possibly change their natural behaviour and would not demonstrate the true extent of labelling and the effect it has on pupils. The teacher for example would be highly aware of the need to behave in line with professional standards as otherwise their job might be at risk and so they would be unlikely to openly label students negatively in front of the researcher.
 
Similarly according to Item C, “some pupils, teachers and parents may refuse to participate in a field experiment” – particularly if they feel intimidated by the presence of the researcher or if they have concerns about the anonymity of the study or the power held by the researcher. Students may see the researcher as part of the school hierarchy and therefore may moderate their behaviour to conform to the expectations of the school. This means the researcher is either unlikely to gain a valid picture of teacher labelling and its effect on pupils or they may have to act unethically to ensure the authenticity of their study.

There are also some significant ethical limitations of using field experiments to study teacher labelling which must be considered. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) famously conducted a field experiment in a Californian primary school which involved giving pupils an IQ test. Teachers were then told that this test had been used to identify the top 20% of pupils (known as the spurters due to their potential to develop) although in reality these pupils had been selected at random and not on the basis of their ability. After eight months, the pupils were re-tested and there was a significant difference between the performance of the “spurters” and the rest of the group which the sociologists put down to the impact of teacher labelling as this was the independent variable. Though this study did indeed provide extremely valid data illustrating the impact of teacher labelling on pupils’ achievement it also raised ethical issues. In the first instance, both the teachers and the pupils had experienced deception about the true nature of the research and as such had not been able to offer informed consent. There was also the issue of the psychological harm caused to the pupils which went directly against the school’s legal duty of care and also their objectives of raising achievement for all pupils. This suggests that field experiments are not a particularly useful method for a sociologist studying teacher labelling and its effect on students as they cause too many ethical objections.

However one significant advantage of the use of field experiments such as that conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson was that it was highly reliable due to the relative simplicity of the method. As such within five years the research had been replicated numerous times and the original findings still stand. This would suggest that for a positivist sociologist the method of field experiments does in fact have its uses. However it is important to note from a practical perspective according to Item C that “field experiments tend to be small scale” due to restrictions on time and money available to conduct the research and this means they also have significant limitations in terms of representativeness and the ability to generalise about the effects of teacher labelling.

Based on the evidence however, sociologists would argue that although there are some clear advantages to using field experiments, in general the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.
[~950 Words]

Please Note: These answers have been produced without the knowledge of the mark scheme and merely reflect my attempt at producing a model answer on the day of the exam.

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