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.