How Effective is the Use of Experiments to Assess Power and Authority in Prisons

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“Prisons are very closed and controlled social settings. Several layers of permission are needed from the Prison Service, the prison governor, the prisoners, and so on. Any perceived disruption caused by the research is unlikely to be tolerated by the prison authorities, so researchers have to maintain constant care with their work. There are many particular ethical issues when studying prisons. Safety is a major issue for researchers in prison, especially when dealing with those who have committed serious offences. Prisoners may reveal that they are seriously depresses or that they have committed a further crime for which they have not been charged. In both cases, researchers face the ethical dilemma of whether they should reveal this information - probably given in confidence - to the authorities. Experiments in a simulated environment are useful because they allow the researcher to investigate an issue like prisons without facing these and other ethical problems in real prisons. However, re-creating power and authority relationships in an artificial laboratory situation can cause other ethical problems.”

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Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the strengths and weaknesses of using experiments to investigate power and authority in prisons. (15 marks)

There are two types of experiments which are used by sociologists to study various issues, which are laboratory experiments and field experiments. As favoured by positivists, the laboratory experiments are artificial environments where the researcher controls variables to discover their effect, with the aim to discover a causal law. However, sociologists sometimes use field experiments to overcome the lack of validity of lab experiments. Field experiments differ from lab experiments as they take place in the participants' natural surroundings, and the participants are usually unaware that they are in an experiment.

Researchers could use laboratory experiments to create a prison situation amongst participants and observe their behaviour in terms of power and authority within the simulated prison. Lab experiments are likely to be used because if prisons were to be studied, there are greater risks of practical issues arising. For example, prisons are closed and controlled settings which mean that access to them may not be gained, and even so, prison guards and other authority figures could be protective over their 'canteen' like culture and thus may deny requests for access. Despite this, previous research has shown that researchers have easier access to organisations such as prisons if they are encouraged and research is funded by the government. For example, researchers of the 'short, sharp shock' approach gained access by easier means than they would have had without having the support from the authorities and government.

If access is permitted and a laboratory study is carried out within an actual prison, the guards and other staff would be aware of the research taking place thus they may produce behaviour which is not normal to them on a day to day basis. The presence of this Hawthorne effect would undermine the validity of the findings because the research is no longer measuring what it is meant to, and is studying false behaviour. However, it can be argued that such studies would be valid because Zimbardo was able to create an artificial setting and saw significant fulfilment of roles of both the guards and prisoners even though the participants were aware they were being observed, suggesting that the behaviour of subjects may not be affected. Even if field experiments were used to reduce the chance of Hawthorne effect, any change to the prisoners' routine would be noticed quickly thus they may be likely to change their behaviour, again undermining validity.

Furthermore, laboratory studies tend to consist of samples which are small because otherwise they would be time consuming and difficult in comparing experimental group with the control group. Many prisons are single sex thus any research carried out in just one prison would not produce representative findings, meaning that the findings may not be representative to the wider population and therefore lacks generalisability. However, it could be suggested that prisoners lack a range of activities within the prison, and so they would be willing to participate in any experiment to entertain themselves. Although the sample size may be increased, this could affect the findings as they may be likely to produce behaviour which they think is useful for the researcher.

Despite this, lab experiments consist of extensive controls of variables and the settings, meaning that the researcher is able to manipulate all aspects of the study. This therefore suggests that the procedure is standardised, allowing the research to be replicated and tested for reliability. For example, Zimbardo's study procedures were clear and thus the research could be replicated, although the extent to how ethical it would be to do so can be argued. However, in comparison to field experiments, lab experiments are much more reliable because they can be easily replicated due to high controls, this suggests that laboratory experiments have advantages over other experimental research methods.

In conclusion, although laboratory experiments may have weaknesses in terms of practical concerns, they are arguably the most appropriate for closed systems such as prisons, because in an open system where countless factors are at work, making it impossible for the researcher to identify or control all the relevant variables. However, researchers could use observations which are favoured by interpretivists as they produce qualitative data, and are suggested to have high validity because they observe behaviour which is naturally occurring and is not affected by any variable manipulation. This means they would be more suitable than experiments in researching power and authority in prisons.

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