So there has been a bit of a debate going on in qualitative circles about funding qualitative research projects. The NSF report “Workshop on Interdisciplinary Standards for Systematic Qualitative Research” recently was released. A follow-up from an earlier commission, this report is meant to serve as a guide for qualitative researchers on how to get funding. It was produced by a group of top qualitative scholars. Then Howard Becker wrote a response. The response is a charged critique of the NSF commission, led by Michele Lamont*.
Becker’s argument is that the NSF guidelines get the practice of research wrong. He claims, “[the report] might be summarized as, “Quit whining and learn to do real science by stating theoretically derived, testable hypotheses, with methods of data gathering and analysis specified before entering the field. Then you’ll get NSF grants like the real scientists do.”” I think he’s largely accurate in this characterization. His response is: ethnographic research isn’t done this way. He outlines a series of classic studies and shows how none of them do research in this way. Indeed, the research is far more emergent than hypothesis testing suggestions.
I was recently in touch with Becker about his response because I was denied a small (trivial) internal grant by my own Vice President’s office. My rejection letter stated,
A serious research proposal should go beyond your impressions of and personal history with one institution. If it does not, it will remain at the level of anecdotal, single-case evidence, and will count as autobiography rather than systematic research. The Committee indicated that it would be willing to re-review the proposal if you would be willing to rewrite it addressing this concern and providing more specific hypotheses, a greater range of evidence in support of them and an evidential base that does not rely just on one institution and your personal relation to it.
In other words, my ethnography was not real research. Luckily, my department has been very quick to challenge this and back up my research as “real.” Yet oddly some of the response has hinged not on the actual practice of the research but instead the claim that legitimate gate-keeping institions have accepted my work (I have a book contract from Princeton). This encounter is the first time I’ve ever confronted the “scientific problem” with my work, and I suspect it’s in part because the review committee likely had few social scientists on it.
It strikes me that Becker is right in noting how the NSF guidelines suggest that we qualitative researchers, “act like real scientists.” Becker’s point is that qualitative research doesn’t work this way. He might drive the point further and argue that “real science” doesn’t look that way either. The implicit claim is that it is harmful to young researchers to think about their research projects in this way. Where he is (admittedly) silent is on the question of how one should write a proposal and grant money to folks given that the research practice doesn’t look like this.
As for what I’m doing, one colleague who shall remain nameless offered to give me an equivalent amount to the small internal grant if I replied:
“Dear Sir/Madam –
If I were to show you a pig that spoke English, would you demand to see a second before you felt it was a worthwhile finding?
Shamus Rahman Khan”
That I won’t do. But it did make me laugh.
* Relatedly, I’ve been meaning to write a post on Michele Lamont’s, “How Professors Think“. It’s in the works. Looking inside the world of grant judgement is quite fascinating. Perhaps this weekend…