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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Determining the Scope of your Proposal

I have been describing some of the steps I went through in seeking outside funding to continue a research project.  In previous posts I described the nature of the funding cycle in law schools and how soft money may be important and where to find sources of funding.  Today I will begin to write about the project itself.  I am not going to frame this as a “how to” or “do this” post.   Instead I am going to describe what I did and make a few observations along the way.  

First, I chose environs that I had a significant familiarity with for my study, rather than choosing the most convenient location to study.  The area I proposed to study in my grant proposal was an area I had observed for the previous two years on a near regular basis -- the Los Angeles Plaza.  Over the past two years, I logged more than eighty hours of observation in the Plaza, thinking about the Space and the different ways constituents used the space. At the end of the day, you are asking for money to study a problem you find interesting. Choosing a problem, a territory, or location you are familiar with will enable you to describe how the project better explains or better resolves problems on the ground.  This is partially related to the question I raised in the last post of whether the funding or the project comes first.  

Second, I formulated a thesis for what I thought I was looking for and why it was important.  This was possibly the most difficult thing for me in thinking through the problems of space and property at the Plaza. And I knew this was a problem that I had not quite nailed down in my previous two years of thinking about the space.  Fortunately, a couple of colleagues kept asking me “where is the law” in your research.  That question, “where is the law,” kept me searching this area for the question I wanted to ask.  In short, over that two year period, I kept returning to the plaza because my instincts told me there is a problem, a relationship, or a legal dynamic that is interesting and that will further property understandings.  Forcing myself to formulate a thesis, helped me isolate what my real thesis would be.  

Third, I spent time replicating the kind of research I want to undertake under the grant.   For me, this was twelve days this summer hanging out around homeless persons, talking to constituents, and observing the Plaza for extended periods of time.  Over the twelve days, I logged more than sixty hours of observation time on the Plaza.   This time was spent doing the things that I would ultimately propose to do in the research.  But it was also spent building and strengthening relationships in the area that would further the work I wanted to do.  Both the ability to substantiate the relationships and the work plan are important features of the proposal that are best described by actually having boots on the ground, so to speak.  Importantly this period of time helped me not only confirm some of my thesis, reframe other parts of the thesis, narrow the subject and create a narrowly tailored proposal.   

Fourth, I read as many similar studies as I could find. For me, I knew homelessness was going to be a primary component for my understanding of the Plaza space.  So I took with me on my extended investigation David Snow and Leon Anderson’s work Down on their Luck.  Snow and Anderson spent several months studying the homeless population in Austin Texas.   Their typologies remain one of the most important ways for understanding how homeless persons understand themselves.   Being able to think about my thesis in a framework that took account of Snow and Anderson’s work helped me identify more questions while on the ground that were vital to my proposal.  

Fifth, I forced myself, before writing the proposal to write a version of the project summary.  For NSF, the project summary is a one page document that describes briefly the project merits, the intellectual merits and the broader impacts of the study, in the verbiage of the National Science Foundation.   I would say that in my process, putting together the initial summary was the most important part of defining what I thought I could accomplish and why the research was important.   Although the summary changed from the initial draft, undertaking this step was important for framing the project’s ultimate scope.  

Lastly, I would recommend reading before, during and after several methodological books relating to the type of study you are wanting to engage.  Methods approach receives much more attention in other disciplines than it does in law and there are a number of questions that will permeate even the theoretical pieces of your work by focusing on how you undertake your work.   Grounding yourself in the methods literature while engaging in the work, and then thinking about it afterwards, will give you a deeper appreciation for how your research is carried out.  One book I found very helpful was Analyzing Social Settings by John Lofland, David Anderson, Leon Snow, and Lyn Lofland

Posted by Marc Roark on September 18, 2013 at 09:34 PM | Permalink


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Great Satire! This could be in the Onion. It's a perfect model for my proposal to study the effects of alcohol on woman in singles' bars.

Posted by: Rick | Sep 19, 2013 3:17:18 PM

I love the Onion. I'm glad that since ithe post is not helpful to you (Rick) in the academic sense that it's helpful in the humorous sense.

Posted by: Marc | Sep 19, 2013 3:57:07 PM

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