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The Hawthorne effect: Can it validate social science research?
Coombs, S. J., & Smith, I. D. (1999). The Hawthorne effect: Can it validate social science research? In S. P. Loo (Ed.), Proceeds of the MERA-ERA Joint conference 1999: Educational Challenges in the New Millennium (pp. 292-299). Malacca, Malaysia.
This paper will review the phenomenon and origins of the Hawthorne effect and its
common interpretation that field-based researchers act as a social interference to the evaluation
and effectiveness of any new program, curriculum or product. The Hawthorne effect’s common
interpretation of researcher bias led to the suggested need for a control group with a doubleblind
experimental research design in order to neutralise its effect. The Hawthorne effect
appears to invalidate much of contemporary practice action research and qualitative research
generally, in which strong social relationships between the researcher and his/her field
“subjects” are considered to be essential for a successful project outcome. Subjects are usually
called “partners” in this research model, because they are of equal status to the researcher who
negotiates a contract to engage their cooperation and active contribution to the research
process. Rogers’ concept of “congruence” is often used to describe the relationship between
researcher and field researcher, just as he used it to describe the counselor-client relationship.
Evaluation research does not require or generally advocate the use of a control group, because
it asks a different question from that asked by experimental researchers: “Does this program,
curriculum or product make a cost-effective difference?” Evaluation research involves a
decision-oriented social encounter, rather than a conclusion-oriented approach to answering
research questions. Given these paradoxes of research methodology between the experimental
and evaluation research paradigms we have asked a very simple question: “how does the
evaluation research paradigm explain the Hawthorne effect?” We will answer this question by
providing a radical new interpretation of the Hawthorne effect that now validates the action
researcher to perform social experiments within his or her own natural setting.
This paper was published in the 1999 Proceedings of the MERA-ERA Joint Conference held at Malacca, Malaysia from 1-3 December 1999
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