Delusions of Granter

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

November 15, 2005

One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is my set of experiences over the past two years reviewing for large grant agenices. While my experience is still a bit limited, it has been intense, and I have developed some impressions (and that is really all they are, given anyone’s limited point of view relative to these funding agencies) about the current trends in social science research on technology in general (and virtual worlds in particular)…

I invite anyone with experience on either side of this equation (applying, reviewing) to share their thoughts as well. Unfortunately, the incentives in this part of academia push everyone to hoard what little information they have about what works (and doesn’t), but I’m actively trying to push against that here in order to ponder whether there are any important shifts or trends that we can identify.

This post is also inspired by one thing that has struck me in particular: the unabashed and common presence of qualitative and exploratory research methods as components in research proposals. In many cases in my experience, and in quite large grants, ethnographic and interview-based methods have a prominent place (I understand that this is somewhat field-specific; education has apparently been pushing the other way, toward quantitative). Cultural anthropologists have a tendency to see themselves as the ‘black sheep’ of the social sciences because of the historical marginalization of both their method and their subjects (for many decades the far-flung places of the world), and this still has some validity, but it is such a dominant self-picture that sometimes we miss how our methods and perspective are in fact increasingly welcomed in some quarters. (Marketing and governmental intelligence are both growth industries for anthropologists right now–a development which makes my head nearly rotate off its axis.)

My general impression about the qualitative methods, particularly ethnographic research, in these proposals (again, primarily those focusing on technology) is that it is mixed–sometimes there is careful thinking and established qualifications behind the research design of that component, but just as often there is clearly not. But I take this as actually good news for qualitative social science, in a way, because it suggests that this method is valued enough in funding circles to be a component that applicants ‘reach for’ even if they do not have the expertise to carry it out. Of course, it is the reviewers who then evaluate the quality of this component, along with the others in the proposal, so my presence as a researcher with a qualitative social science background also itself testifies to these agencies’ commitment to qualitiative approaches.

Beyond this point, however, I’ve also noticed that there are three contrasts that variously define types of research that are sometimes conflated more generally, but which in my experience are seen quite clearly as distinct within the funding arena, and which we need to think a bit about in virtual worlds research. I’ll keep this short, however, because these are very treacherous waters, and I really just want to begin a conversation. (Boilerplate caveat: the oppositional way that I’ve presented them here should be taken with a grain of salt, because these are not mutually exclusive, at least theoretically.)

-quantitative vs qualitiative approaches. In addition to my impression noted above, there is a broader trend, which the funding trend (if it exists) may be following, toward a reincorporation of qualitative research across the social sciences (most obviously in sociology). For me, the key question in virtual world research is: How do we incorporate both of these forms, and evaluate claims across them?

-macro- vs micr0-level studies. This is not quite the same as quant/qual, although they are often treated as such. For virtual world research, the question is: What counts as macro-level? Given that these worlds still occupy the attention of a relatively small group of people, are we necessarily engaging in small-scale research, at least currently? How broad is the impact of our conclusions?

-experimental vs exploratory research. This is to me a central, but largely unspoken, contrast that has a particular importance for virtual world research. Exploratory research, which gets far less attention as a scientific methdology than experimental, is typical of the activity of many geologists, astronomers, botanists, and archaeologists. Rather than hypothesis-testing, it is based on the gathering of information about a given phenomenon, particularly one that is large, complex, and about which we know too little to generate useful (that is, other than self-confirmatory) hypotheses. Its contribution is both empirical (lots of data–‘thick description’ in Geertz’s phrase) and analytical, proposing possible explanations suggested by the data. (In this respect it can plausibly be seen as the expansion of the ‘observation’ step of the ‘scientific method’.)

I’m particularly interested in this last contrast, because I get the impression that it mirrors differing views among virtual world researchers. Some see virtual worlds as having promise for their work primarily as sites for experimental research, and they look for how experimental research could be carried out within and through VWs designed for that purpose. A possible extension of this claim is that that until this research is done, all the observation and analysis of what’s currently going on is not going to generate knowledge that is comparable in terms of impact. Others see the current landscape of virtual worlds as already a site for such a wide variety of (potentially transformative) human activity that exploratory research is our best hope for generating knowledge about them. The possible  extension of this view is to say that experimental contexts will never generate insights that apply in the ‘real world’, where there are real stakes.

I have some reservations about laying out these contrasts as I see them, because I don’t want to polarize the discussion, but (and to return to the topic at hand) I was surprised by the degree to which qualitative, micro-, and exploratory research were a significant part of the proposals I’ve seen, and we researchers need to take account of this when we think about how we can increase support and awareness of virtual worlds research.

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