My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Does money equal time? (Regarding proposed NSF funding of qualitative research)

Following a conference about qualitative methods, the National Science Foundation issued a report that provided “general guidance for developing qualitative research projects” and “recommendations for designing, evaluating, and strengthening qualitative research” (along with a bunch of papers from the workshop). This report has made a bunch of social scientists giddy over the (very real) possibility that the NSF might start funding more qualitative social science research.

This week, the brilliant sociologist Howie Becker (best known outside of sociology for his article “Becoming a Marihuana User” and best known to panicked grad students for his book Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article) penned a critique of the giddiness over the NSF report in an essay titled “How to Find Out How to Do Qualitative Research.” His sentiments are wonderfully summed up in his concluding paragraph:

On the other hand, it may well be–time will tell–that the methods recommended in the 2009 report will produce one result many people have long hoped for: an NSF grant for their research. Anyone wishing for such good fortune should remember one of the other criticisms many times repeated during the earlier meeting. NSF has an apparently inflexible rule that grants will not be given for faculty time released from teaching. But the chief expense of any qualitative research is always the researcher’s time. To do what Whyte and Goffman and Duneier and Hughes and Vaughan and the others cited above did doesn’t really cost much. The materials for recording, storing and analyzing interviews and field notes are cheap. Qualitative researchers need money to pay for their time, so that they can make observations and conduct interviews and get those data down in a permanent form. And NSF won’t pay for that.

Grants are a messy element of contemporary academic life. For some disciplines, grants are necessary to get funding for lab equipment and grad student labor (for the benefits of the “lab” – a.k.a. professor). Yet, increasingly, grants are needed to prove one’s worth in the academic hierarchy. Given the high levels of overheard at most institutions, universities put tremendous pressure on faculty to bring in the grants simply to pay for collective resources. Thus, faculty are often scrambling to get grants. Unfortunately, grants benefit some disciplines more than others. And it makes sense to get many multi-million dollar grants when you need to buy a crazy contraption to do your research, but does the same thing make sense in the social sciences?

Should scholars who don’t need much funding to produce quality research feel pressured to get grants even when they’re not necessary for the work? Sure, it’s uber nice when social sciences and humanities can pay for grad students (and none of us from those worlds would complain about this), but does pressure to get many grants actually create more research in these domains? Or does the lack of high value overhead from the social sciences make work in these areas look less worthy to money-strapped institutions because it doesn’t bring in the bacon? In other words, are we recognizing the perceived value of research findings or the costs of doing the research?

And how does this relate to faculty teaching load? In the sciences, it’s quite common for grad students to also do the bulk of that labor and for faculty to simply teach the main lecture class. Because of the dynamics of social sciences classes, I would bet that they are more of a load on faculty than in the sciences. So do grants without options for getting teaching relief actually add more of a burden on social science researchers?

More than anything, I’m curious if any of you have been privy to these discussions and have thoughts on the matter. I know that many of you come from different disciplinary trajectories so I’d be curious what your response is to this discussion of NSF funding of the social sciences.

(Tx Joe and Yuri)

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5 comments to Does money equal time? (Regarding proposed NSF funding of qualitative research)

  • ken

    Thank you for highlighting the report and having a link to Howie’s piece. He remains a brilliant guy. Besides Outsiders, in my earlier work, when I did education, I found “Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School” to be quite fabulous.

    I have a slightly different take on the conversation. I believe Howie has it right: “that its sponsorship by the National Science Foundation may lead unwary and uncritical readers to think that all the problems of qualitative research methods have now been definitively settled and the 2009 report, and especially its introductory sections, can be recommended to unsuspecting colleagues (and, worse yet, to students) as an authoritative settling of all the outstanding contentious questions.”

    In particular I’m concerned that the change it will bring to my discipline (albeit to which I’m perhaps a bastard child) is the rise of mediocrity. H. Russell Bernard (perhaps inadvertently) enabled a focus on method as the core of the discipline that has enabled a field full of recipe followers, rather than the old school researchers like Becker describes here. What Bernard started, NSF will finish off. It is known that power follows money, and it is clear that big money is at stake (at least for social researchers it will be “big”). Becker implies, and I will state, it is likely that the people most likely to apply to the NSF would adopt the methods of NSF uncritically. In short, NSF will give money (and power) to the mediocre. You’re excellent posts points to this problem equally well, in that in social science, the key to research is the researcher. The day that NSF funds research like “Whyte and Goffman and Duneier and Hughes and Vaughan and the others cited above” is the day I’ll rejoice. Until then, this seems like black day for social science research.

  • Sigh. It’s like asking someone who is colour-blind to develop recommendations for evaluating visual art. The problem is age-old and fundamental: what is valued by knowledge and who gets to decide? A quick example: My department is comprised of two programs – Adult Education & Community Development, and Counselling Psychology. What is valued as knowledge – that is, the methodological approaches that are accepted as thesis-valid, or grant-recommendation-valid – by each program is just about 180 degrees away from each other. A proposal that would be rated as top-notch by one program is near the bottom as far as the other is concerned (we have a number of students who sort of straddle the two programs).

    The NSF finally recognizing that there is a place in knowledge construction for qualitative research is the good news; not being able to appreciate the structural differences in how the knowledge is produced is the bad news. And “qualitative” spans research paradigms from post-positivist through constructivist to critical/radical. I’m guessing that the NSF will stop at the very conservative end of post-positivist research, rendering it not much better than simply sticking to what they know – quantitative, with perhaps one or two “open questions” at the end of a survey.

    Here in Canada, there are actually three federal funding agencies that cover three distinct approaches to knowledge: Hard science and engineering (NSERC), social sciences and humanities (SSHRC), and medical & health (CIHR). Each has its own criteria and preferred methodologies. In particular, SSHRC grants specifically provide for teaching relief funding (as well as hiring grad students), but typically, little in the way of equipment (especially computer technology). A better proposal would be for NSF to recommend a new agency akin to SSHRC with people who actually know how its done on its advisory and review boards.

  • Academic funding, interesting topic. Although, the problems I find take up my time mostly on the other end of the scale. Try a look at,

    Management of the Dublin Airport Authority Capital Investment Programme, Presented by Liam Gaffney, Dublin Airport Authority

    I saw Liam deliver his presentation and it blew me away. It made me realize just how feckless my own crew had been in managing not so large sums for construction. Lessons to be learned I fear, hard lessons.

    I fully support this direction in your work Danah. Just because academic research is on the other end of the spectrum I speak about, doesn’t make it any less fundamental and urgent. Alan Kay is one of the lone voices I have heard myself, in recent times articulate this problem. Charlie and myself had a right old tangle over it here:

    Until he linked me to Ddos history lesson. Very interesting. It must be intriguing to work in some high quality research and development environment. Where so many urgent questions are being asked and solved.

    Brian O’ Hanlon

  • joe

    NSF seems to want to try to fund things that they haven’t been able to in the past… but they definitely need some education in qualitative methods in general and grounded theoretical work as well (Becker’s manuscript is packed with great examples of work that NSF should fund).

    This also seems very relevant to IRBs (which I’ve been thinking too much of lately) in that IRBs typically want a hypothesis and such before you’re given permission to begin an investigation. IRBs clearly need some mechanisms in place, other than protocol amendment, to allow for dynamic qualitative inquiry.

    This issue is coming to head actually in a hard science: network research. There, it’s hard to convince researchers that what they’re ultimately studying isn’t IP addresses but people (Simson Garfinkel’s rule of thumb seems apt here: if you could do it without humans, do it; otherwise, you need to think hard about human subjects issues and get IRB approval). However, network research often finds very interesting stuff during the course of research. This often leads to recording way more data than one would normally need so as to not loose any possible sources of “interestingness”. Unfortunately, even something as simple as recording both IP addresses at the ends of a connection can be very sensitive (with or without other context). So, here too, there’s a need for informed revision of experimental protocol.

    Sorry, I wondered.

  • Seb

    Similar problem in computer science in Canada. Hardware has gotten cheaper, yet researchers get a deluge of funding programs that offer large sums to purchase equipment, and comparatively the money to pay for time is small. So in order to keep looking big they need to make up a need for costly stuff.

    I remember asking my advisor on the day those 14 unneeded fancy chairs and whatnot suddenly filled our lab: “Hmm, can’t we just resell that junk to hire actual brains?” You can guess the answer…