Research Design: Experiments and Experimental Thinking

Early in the 20th century, F. C. Bartlett, the pioneering psychologist who developed schema theory, went to Cambridge University to study with W.H.R. Rivers—an experimental psychologist who became one of the pioneers of modern anthropology. In 1899, Rivers had been invited to join the Torres Straits Expedition and saw the opportunity to do comparative psychology studies of non-Western people (Tooker 1997:xiv). When Bartlett got to Cambridge, he asked Rivers for some advice. Bartlett expected a quick lecture on how to go out and stay out, about the rigors of fieldwork, and so on. Instead, Rivers told him: ‘‘The best training you can possibly have is a thorough drilling in the experimental methods of the psychological laboratory” (Bartlett 1937:416).

Bartlett found himself spending hours in the lab, ‘‘lifting weights, judging the brightness of lights, learning nonsense syllables, and engaging in a number of similarly abstract occupations’’ that seemed to be “particularly distant from the lives of normal human beings.’’ In the end, though, Bartlett concluded that Rivers was right. Training in the experimental method, said Bartlett, gives one ‘‘a sense of evidence, a realization of the difficulties of human observation, and a kind of scientific conscience which no other field of study can impart so well’’ (Bartlett 1937:417).

I agree. Most anthropologists don’t do experiments, but a solid grounding in the logic of experiments is one of the keys to good research skills, no matter what kind of research you’re doing. At the end of this chapter, you should understand the variety of research designs. You should also understand the concept of threats to validity and how we can respond to those threats.

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