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by Peter Moskos

April 16, 2014

Laments of the Qualitative Researcher

I don't apply for many grants, in part because they're so hard for a qualitative researcher to get. Ethnographic work and qualitative research isn't taken seriously in a generally quantitative field. My research doesn't follow the standard "theory, hypothesis, experiment, verify" model of hard science. Nor should it. But it's hard to get grants or get published in Criminology if you don't. (The quantitative/qualitative ratio leading journals is roughly a depressing 90%/10%.) So why is this work not valued in research grants and journal publications? I do my research the old-fashioned way: I talk to people. Perhaps it's worthless research, but professors do assign my books to students. But why is the worth of qualitative research only recognized after the fact?

[If you look at Amazon's list of "best sociology," you have to get to number seventy-six before you find one written by an actual sociologist! I would see this is a crisis of the field (even given issues with how Amazon classifies sociology).]

So here's my next book idea: I'm going to research and write an oral history of the Great New York City Crime Drop. Why? Because crime went down more than anybody thought possible, and there is still no academic consensus about what actually happened. It's one thing to talk about Broken Windows and Compstat in theory. But I want to explain the crime drop from the perspective of the NYPD officers who were actually there. What police have to say may be profound. And nobody ever talks to the lowly beat cop. At least what they have to say will be revealing. And if nothing else, it should be a very good read.

The grant rejections (I wanted money to pay for transcribers) were check-the-box, so I don't want to read too much into specifics. And the single most important reason may be: "Proposal needs stronger organization or writing." Had they just left it at that, I would said, gosh, maybe they're right. That's a good reason for rejection. I could have spent more time writing it. (But then, in a catch-22, I didn't want to waste more than a few days writing a grant application that would probably be rejected...)

It's the other specific reasons that I have issues with, such as:
• Proposal does not clearly state a testable hypothesis, goal or aesthetic vision
Well of course there's no clearly stated testable hypothesis because I'm not testing a hypothesis. It's called Grounded Theory, if you want to get fancy (I don't). I'm going to talk to people to listen to them and try and understand what they have to say. There's no shame in that (nor, apparently, grant money).
• Research methodology is underdeveloped
I'm going to interview a lot of cops who worked the streets from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. And then I'm going to write a book about it. Just because you don't like that plan doesn't mean it's underdeveloped.
• Proposal fails to convince reviewers of scholarly significance
Murders in NYC decreased eighty-some percent and we, the so-called "experts" in the field, still can't agree on a theory that has any practical use. If explaining the crime drop doesn't have scholarly significance, I don't know what does!
• Proposal does not demonstrate sufficient understanding of the state of the discipline or field
Really? This is my field, and I don't think I'm an idiot. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

I've done some pretty good research in my day. I've written good books and social science. But because I choose not to follow the hard-science model of methods and writing, I still feel like an idiot when my grant applications are rejected. It's not so much the rejection that hurts (don't "poor baby" me; I have thick skin). This wasn't a large grant. And I'm good at research on the cheap. Still, it's the stated reasons for rejection that make me throw up my hands in frustration.

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