Taming human subjects : researchers' strategies for coping with vagaries in social science experiments

Ting, Carol and Montgomery, Martin (2023) Taming human subjects : researchers' strategies for coping with vagaries in social science experiments. Social Epistemology. pp. 1-17. ISSN 1464-5297 (https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2023.2177128)

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The experimental method is designed to secure the reliable attribution of causal relationships by means of controlled comparison across conditions. Doing so, however, depends upon the reduction of uncertainties and inconsistencies in the process of comparison; and this poses particularly significant challenges for the behavioral and social sciences because they work with human subjects, whose malleability and complexity often interact in unexpected ways with experimental manipulations, thus resulting in unpredictable behavior. Drawing on the Science and Technology Studies perspective and one of our authors' experiences in experimental work, this paper examines how experimental social scientists manage to establish objectivity and standardization in the face of vagaries arising from working with human subjects. In identifying experimental researchers' solutions to this challenge, we draw on methodological discussions among applied social scientists as naturally occurring data, through which we show how some seemingly mundane practices play essential roles in extracting patterns out of otherwise unpredictable behaviors in the lab. Closely examining such strategies, we reveal the inherent instabilities in the experimental method when adopted in the social sciences and discuss their methodological implications. In conclusion, we make tentative suggestions for escaping the kinds of methodological impasses which we have identified.