Abstraction and Detail in Experimental Design


Brutger, R., Kertzer, J., Renshon, J., Tingley, D., & Weiss, C. (Forthcoming). Abstraction and Detail in Experimental Design. American Journal of Political Science .


Experimentalists in political science often face the question of how abstract or concrete their experimental stimuli should be. Typically, this question is framed in terms of tradeoffs relating to experimental control and generalizability: the more context you introduce into your studies, the less control you have, and the more difficulty you have generalizing your results. Yet we have reasons to question this framing of the tradeoff, and there is relatively little systematic evidence experimenters can rely on when calibrating the degree of abstraction in their studies. We seek to make two contributions with this project. First, we provide a theoretical framework which identifies and considers the consequences of three dimensions of abstraction in experimental design: situational hypotheticality, actor identity, and contextual detail. Second, we replicate a range of classic vignette-based survey experiments from political science, varying these levels of abstraction. Our results suggest that apart from a specific set of conditions, there are fewer tradeoffs between abstraction and detail in survey experiment design than political scientists often assume.

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Last updated on 02/24/2022