A rant about grant rejections

As I wrote in my previous post, my recent grant application submitted earlier this year to the Norwegian Research Council was rejected.

I have no problem with a reject (well, I actually do since it is a kick-ass project!). I try to follow Paul J. Silvia’s advice in the book “How To write a Lot” concerning rejections:

To write a lot, you should rethink your mental models of rejections and publications. Rejections are like a sales tax on publications: The more papers you publish, the more rejections you receive (p. 100-101).

What I question this year is the application’s evaluation and what it entails concerning the referees (and thus the Research Council of Norway) views of “proper” anthropology.

While the project is hailed as promising and innovative due to its comparative approach, it fails because it uses a quantitative approach instead of participant observation. To quote the evaluation:

 …the lack of qualitative methods such as participant observation, for example, are major problems.

In effect, the evaluation seems to indicate that, in 2020, it is still not appropriate for anthropologists—at least for the panel evaluating the proposal—to collect quantitative data.

The proposal uses a methodological approach with demonstrable success in investigating cooperation—namely, experimental economic games and social network analysis.

Moreover, it is pointed out that the analyses stipulated are well thought through but:

Yet, it is not credible that the complexity of social relations – not to speak or norms, behavior and the relation between the two – can be explored through experiments and through statistical analysis with a limited number of variables

So what I actually think of as one of the significant strengths of quantitative analyses, i.e. the operationalising of critical variables and relationships based on specific research questions, is, in fact, a weakness because it simplifies the complexity of a given culture.

Yes, it does simplify complexity. This is not a shortcoming; it is a strength if your aim is to look at similarities and differences between and within societies and cultures.

Suppose you’re on the other hand, concerned with the underlying ideology, cosmology, beliefs, cultural understanding of cooperation. In that case, participant observation is a useful tool.

More to the point, a quantitive approach forces you to be precise with assumptions and research questions. A level of precision not necessary for a qualitative approach.

I have no problem with disagreeing with a choice of method. After all, methods should follow the research question(s).

What I object to is the kind of philosophical pre-commitment to a specific tool to be used by ALL anthropologists that the evaluation seems to imply.

While an n = 1 does not lend a lot of credibility to my position, this is precisely the point.  

My experience might not at all be representative.  

It does not tell a full story of how the research Council of Norway evaluates proposals because no similarities or variations can be gleaned from it.

But then again, this is precisely the kind of evidence participant observation is good at accessing, namely showing detailed, but yet anecdotal, information about any given topic.

From my point of view, this evaluation shows a cognitive bias often referred to as  Maslow’s hammer:

‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail’.

Research questions should guide the use of the method; you should not be limited by tacit understandings of a discipline’s “proper” technique. Anything else leads to imperfect science and shoddy scholarship.

Next deadline is the 10th of February. I might resubmit…

Or I might wait until the wind changes direction and numbers are not viewed as anathema to anthropology (if ever).

Because, the fundamental problem for me is that while rejections are the norm when doing science, IT is hard to see how to revise this proposal to give it a higher chance of success without changing the underlying idea!

However, I’ve managed to successfully secure 3 grants from the Norwegian Research Council before, so it is not out of reach.

Hopefully, 2021 will be better.

Collaborative foundations of herding: The formation of cooperative groups among Tibetan pastoralists

Just got a paper published in Journal of Arid Environments on cooperation among Tibetan pastoralists.

You can read the paper here, it’s open access.

Luckily, the paper got published on the same day as I got grant applications rejected from the Research Council of Norway.

Why bring that up? Because the paper and one of the grant applications have some obvious parallels.

The paper documents why cooperation is vital for Tibetan pastoralists: it increases control of herds, reduces individual household’s labour demand and increases the potential for economic diversification.

Tibetan herder bring a subset of the herd back to camp for the night. Photo (C) Marius Warg Næss

The grant application extends this aspect: it wants to comparatively investigate pastoral cooperation by taking as its starting point that cooperative herding groups are a necessary component of pastoral life.

The paradox is that while it is almost impossible for pastoral households to maintain production without cooperative labour investment and mutual help from other households, a comparative perspective of cooperative herding group formation is currently lacking.

Moreover, while cooperation is widely documented, it is treated in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. For example, it has been used as an explanation for why there is no relationship between household labour investment and pastoral production (see this paper).

Furthermore, herding groups have been described as fluid: changing composition from year to year and between seasons. Thus, they have been viewed as less important than more extensive and more political, groupings.

My personal point of view that despite the instability of herding units, they represent an essential building block of nomadic societies because they are concerned with daily cooperation.

More to the point, we know relatively little about them: what evidence we have represent a snapshot in time. We lack longitudinal data as well as data concerning how cooperation is changing as a consequence of changes in land tenure.

While getting grant rejections sucks, I still think this is a worthwhile project that I’ll pursue.

Anyone interested in collaborating on such a project is welcome to contact me.