The literal definition of the term experiment is to try something new or, for the first time, to put something to the test or to put anything on trial. For example, a government may launch an experimental welfare program to determine its feasibility. In addition, many items are tested on an experimental basis to assess their usefulness and flaws. Researchers now apply the experimental approach to establish and quantify the cause-effect link between two known variables.
Comte realized that artificial controlling of the whole society and other sociological phenomena were difficult, if not impossible. However, he emphasized that natural experimentation often occurs when the normal flow of the phenomena is interfered with in any specified way.
Comte, for example, believed that pathological occurrences, as in biology, enabled “the actual equivalent of pure experimentation” by introducing an artificial state and allowing investigators to watch normal processes reestablish themselves in the event of the pathological condition. Much as a biologist may learn about normal biological functioning by studying sickness, social physicists can learn about normal societal dynamics by studying pathological instances. Thus, although Comte’s idea of “natural experimentation” was undoubtedly flawed in experimental logic, it fascinated successive generations of researchers.
In the social sciences, experimentation is complex, although Comte claimed that “experimentation takes place anytime the usual flow of the phenomena is interfered with in any determined way.”
This method is more appropriate for other disciplines than for sociology. Interfering with and attempting to influence social phenomena is plainly impossible. The only probable exception would be a natural experiment in which the effects of something that occurred in one environment (for example, a hurricane) are observed and compared to the circumstances in other locations where such an event did not happen.