Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Social Experiments Evaluating Public Programs with Experimental Methods

Larry L. Orr
Sage Publications: London
0-7619-1295-9 (pb); 0-7619-1294-0 (hb)
17.99 (pb); 43.00 (hb)
262 + xiv pp.

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The defining characteristic of a social experiment is the ability to randomly assign individuals to two or more groups that are subject to different policy regimes. Direct control of all the factors that might influence the outcome of interest (i.e. human behaviour) is unattainable. Instead, it is the random assignment that ensures the statistical equivalence of the different treatment groups. The power of social experiments to assess different policies, procedures and programs on individuals is unsurpassed -- provided the appropriate procedures to ensure the integrity of the social experiment are followed.

Larry Orr's book is an excellent resource for those planning a social experiment. It clearly walks a practitioner through the steps of a social experiment. Individual chapters are devoted to alternative random assignment models, sample designs, implementation and data collection issues and analysis strategies. The text is easily understandable, and yet provides enough depth in the presentation of the material to be very useful for those who are involved in conducting social experiments.

The book also places social experiments in context. There is a discussion of the rationale and history of social experiments, and how this research strategy fits into the policy process. Not only are the practical tools of social experiments provided, but there is ample discussion of the context of their use. The sections on increasing the likelihood that experimental results will influence policy and practical strategies for maintaining the integrity of the experimental designs are particularly useful.

The book is also a useful resource for those interested in the different types of research designs available and their strengths and weaknesses. The first chapter provides an excellent discussion of experimentation in general, with lots of definitions of key concepts. In sum, Social Experiments will be on interest to researchers, practitioners, students and teachers, both as a resource text and as a guide to practice.

Rhonda Cockerill
University of Toronto

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999