On research proposals and grant writing

“Preconceived ideas are pernicious in any scientific work, but foreshadowed problems are the main endowment of the scientific thinker.” [Bronislaw Malinowski 1922:8-9].

Brief Guidelines for Writing a Doctoral Research Proposal | William W. Kelly

Writing a proposal is an obvious and essential first step in any significant primary research. It has at least two benefits. It requires you to think up and think through a research(able) problem, clearly and concretely. It also forces you to try to persuade knowledgeable others of the problem’s merits and your qualifications. It is thus an excellent means for coming to terms with a nebulous set of issues.

Proposals are probably the most rewritten and scrutinized prose that any of you will write as anthropologists. There are various formats, but it is usually best to craft your basic proposal in about ten pages (2500-3000 words). The most widely accepted framework has four sections, which are described below.

  1. The objective. The proposal should open with a brief statement that declares in general terms the principal aim of your research. It should also suggest (briefly) the significance of the question. Get to the point quickly. Within a half page of text, the reader/reviewer must know your basic question and why it might be important. This section is usually the last to be written.
  2. The background. This section is a short bibliographic essay that answers the question, what is the scholarship that is relevant to this research project and that has inspired you? You may organize your review around works or debates or scholars which/who have contributed theoretically to your chosen topic. Avoid a simple recitation of references. Introduce the literature judiciously, and do not run off a laundry list of names. Avoid sheer negativity. It is unlikely that any project is so thoroughly novel as to pull the scales from our eyes and correct all previous ignorance and errors. The reviewer wants to know how you fit in as well as how you stand out. You can usually see further by standing on the shoulders and not in the ashes of those who have come before you. In short, organize your commentary in this section to make your project appear as the next logical, necessary step in our understanding of an issue.
  3. The research design. How will you operationalize your general problem and how will the research proceed? What particular questions and methods do you plan to use? What is your rough timetable? What difficulties do you anticipate? How will  you handle ethical dimensions of the project? This is what you lay out in this section. It is usually at least as long as the previous section. Most reviewers, especially fellow anthropologists, are not overly concerned with whether you will follow this design in all its details. Rather, they read this section as a demonstration of how you can translate an abstract question into an actual research program that is feasible, realistic, and imaginative. You must walk a delicate line between claims that are too cautious (and hence, uninteresting) and those that are overly ambitious (and thus not credible). This section should include a brief account of any preliminary research you have done towards the project and other credentials (contacts, language and other skills) that strengthen the likelihood of success.
  4. The significance. Why should anybody fund you? What does the project promise to contribute to our understanding? This section, in effect, makes explicit the connections between the previous three sections. Be specific. Reviewers (who are likely senior and more experienced than you) are seldom impressed with hot air (“this project will present an entirely new understanding of …”) or with broken walls of knowledge (“this project will fill a gap in our understanding of….”). The challenge is to express your project’s importance in a way that is neither vain boasting nor underwhelming modesty.

Other helpful guidelines

Sydel Silverman, “Writing Grant Proposals for Anthropological Research,” Current Anthropology 32(4):485-489 [1991]

Adam Przeworski and Frank Salomon, “On the Art of Writing Proposals,” a pamphlet essay issued by the Social Science Research Council [1988]

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