on writing proposals and making sense of ones research

Writers block is one thing, but I’m feeling cursed. Everytime I sit down to fix my original proposal I blank out. The original got a tenuous approval, and has since been returned to me with a list of necessary corrections (ie. I failed to include page number references in my quotes…).

Why a block? because I’m at a point in the research where I need to refine my research strategy to bring it all into focus.

So let’s look at what I’m trying to do and what I have done:

  • Explore the culture of publishing in anthropology, focusing on how internet communication technologies are changing the way anthropologists share and develop knowledge.  -> I’m learning a lot, but I don’t feel like an expert yet. I think I left this aspect too broad in the proposal and I will try and focus on clearing this up…
  1. journal publishing -> publish or perish in promotion and tenure review (prestige journals), accessibility arguments (need for open access, inability for universities to maintain full range of journals, inability of those outside academia to read what is written about themselves), gatekeeping (maintaining disciplinary control), audience (Eriksen’s arguments for public presence), copyright law (self archiving rights, creative commons)
  2. Blogging -> Release Early Release Often (rero). Sharing ideas before publishing to get feedback. Inviting criticism, being open to change. Engaging collaborators.  Using the blog as a learning space (how to make it two way).   Private/Public dichotomy -> gradient of public and private (ie listserv -> blogsphere, different online spaces).  Identity formation in the blogsphere (what is an anthro blog? How do we identify it? Should I blog with my name? Do I want my google identity to be so openly academic? What do I do when I act like a fool and can’t delete my !@#! post?  <– why i don’t write enough comments on other bloggers posts)
  3. Book publishing -> distribution, audience… havent looked into much more here.
  4. Open Access Publishing and self-archiving -> Exploring process by volunteering time to do the legwork archiving some collaborators publications. I’m also developing a series of narratives around teachers experiences publishing. Why not support open access?
  5. Motivations behind publishing work. -> building up decent series of interviews with teachers to find out how they got published for the first time, and why they were motivated to do so. Who did they write for? Also section on how the work was received, reviewed (stories about how peer review changed their articles), etc… This is my attempt to bring in “life history”-like perspectives… except I didn’t bother going for a holistic life history, and instead am just going for the publishing history.
  • Experiment and contribute to online ethnography -> check.  I think using this blog provided an interesting way to develop conversations. It hasn’t always worked, as it depends heavily on the generosity of ones collaborators, and the topics one writes about, and how it is approached.
  • Advocate open access publishing. -> check.

Other notes:

  • Not all teachers are required or even encouraged to publish in journals, it is most important for teachers on the tenure track.
  • Some non-tenured teachers publish anyways, and in my limited interviews these teachers are very open to open access while the tenured ones less so. (pathetically small sample to generalize with.. so consider this a possible hypothesis rather than a result).
  • New Participants, New Audiences, New Ways of Speaking
  1. Audience -> Is writing for a broader public a matter of dumbing things down? -> language, accessibility…  teacher -> student and teacher -> teacher, but with blogs we have student -> student, student/teacher -> public, and public -> student/teacher.
  2. Participants -> kinds of participants, (informants, interlocutors, collaborators, expert, non-expert), -> Lassiter, Marcus, -> collaboration…. —> Online boundaries – community, social networks, disciplinariness, “disciplinary turf wars” as Carl called it.
  3. Ways of speaking -> blogging culture, issues of academic formalities, issues of political bias and speaking past each other (election as example, studies revealing audiences pick and chose what to read and hence ignore/hide from opposing views).  Ways to present anthropology differently -> multimedia, remixing.     Fabian’s ethnography as commentary (comments and texts building into virtual archives).
  • Anthropology as advocacy -> do we need to find “new” things? Is it really about “gaining knowledge” or could it be more engaged and practical.  Who is gaining knowledge?  I can learn about self-archiving, but people already know about that. In doing this research I’ve engaged a number of people to think about these issues, and so by doing “research” many people gain knowledge that others already had. Why wouldn’t this be considered good research?
  • Research could be more about sharing/advocating ideas than about generating revolutionary new insights… Some feel it’s not about getting information, but more about analysis and comparison.  In terms of analyzing data, I have a lot I could do with this blog (word clouds for one). I can talk about where people come from, how posts worked and didn’t, etc… so I have enough data to satisfy the analysis hungry profs, and enough advocacy to satisfy myself and the activists).
  • Ways of learning. Collaborative learning processes. Discussion with Pamthropologist and Wesch about classroom management -> value of lecture, value of motivation and interest, value of team work.

One thing I avoided doing was creating categories for this blog. I did this to keep an open mind and see where things went and because I prefer key words to category searches. Now that I have a bunch of posts built up, I can create categories consistent with my thesis proposal.

That I can’t immediately come up with these categories probably reflects the scattered nature of my mind and of my results so far. I’ll have it sorted soon.

more more more… let it flow…

I will be writing the thesis in a multi-genre style. I hope to experiment with fictional narratives, directly transcribed conversations, blog posts, etc… This is as much a personal strategy to try everything out a bit as it is a flexible strategy that is open to using whatever presentation style suits the material. This of course needs to be balanced within academic culture, and so I’ll use these other styles of presentation as backdrops to the more traditionally academic writing I hopefully will be able to do.

Woops missed out on all my notes on Bourdieu and social fields. Taking this on should bring a nice wordy academic tone to the thesis, and I’m happy to do it because I think the concepts will actually be useful to think with.

social drama’s —

  1. I also want to talk about the kinds of discussions blogging opens up. The HTS program, and the debate surrounding will make a perfect story to reflect on the role of public and private debate in anthropology -> but is this close enough to the main thesis topic?
  2. disciplinary turf wars.
  3. what makes it an anthro blog?
  4. anthsoc.com’s decision to move from blog to e-journal
  5. story about racing heart rate after posting stupid messages on a listserv.. feeling idiotic, worrying too much about it… this will be a fun and informative narrative of my experiences and embarassments online.


[so where do we go from here?]

  • expand thesis question to allow for a discussion about anthropology as an online community perhaps? This would fit with the HTS debate and other happenings in the blogsphere. How to justify the link between publishing and communities? Simple, focus on “sharing knowledge”.  Then integrate social fields, talk about the promotion, tenure, and publishing system as a field where people establish authority. Then talk about public engagement -> blogs, other tools to communicate anthropology beyond traditional boundaries.   Then talk about fighting that occurs in disciplines when they all break into a new field together… [big topic on the media anthro list recently].   Can also use the publishing stories i’ve developed in interviews to look at how “the game is played”.]
  • I think I will do a few email surveys to investigate non-tenured teaching and publishing… peaks my interest, will make it fit somehow.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Angelica Higuera on March 25, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Hi Owen,

    I just re-read your post “ON WRITING PROPOSALS AND MAKING SENSE OF ONE’S RESEARCH” and first I will reflect on how this post might be useful for you and then how it is useful for me. I start with you, because of course it is always easier to think see what others can do instead of what we can do, right? Anyway, first I will have to tell you that I feel ackward as I write, I have never post something in a blog, so as I started I asked my self am I blogging? and then I thought, nooo, is his blog, he is the one blogging, but this is just something that is not really relevant, I am just being influenced by your invitation, by your invitation towards fluidity, release early write …. whatever it is, the idea is not clear in words but is very clear in meaning for me. I worry about making mistakes, about grammar, and about how this medium works, I am asking myself will he be able to see this post? is this like having an email.?

    But, again that’s something that is not truly relevant and yet is something that I think has benefited you immensely, you blog, you write, remember I suggested free writing? well, of course you know what it is and how to do it, and in this post you’ve got many aspects of what it seems to me, you want to do through your research, so I just wanted to call your attention to it, because I do write on paper and I also find that I have been thinking about my research and when it does not make any sense, bum! I find a piece of paper where it all comes together somehow.

    But, I am thinking now, is that you are much smarter by doing this as you do, for example, since I am so removed from technology (i. e. have not had a cell phone ever) I do not take advantage of what it offers.

    You write and many people can help you through your learning experience, I mean, nobody can come to my place and look into my pile of notebooks, files, even I cannot do it sometimes. So, in this case by me noticing a post that relates so much to what I am experiencing right now I feel that you have been using a medium that challenges you to be continuosly alert, it seems you had two weeks of a block, well I have had a three month period, and of course I feel behind, what you were wondering about in November, is something that I have been dealing with lately, I wonder if the medium that you choose to study and to use to make sense of so much information is more reliable than what is usually reliable for me, paper and pen.

    If I had been more open to writing before perhaps I will be less afraid to make so many mistakes, besides by realizing through the experience of others that writing a thesis is a process full of mistakes, I will be much more comfortable with doing them as well.

    Anyway, this is like a long email writing experience for me, I know is different yet I need to compare it to something I know to start understanding how it is different.

    Somehow, I will just send this post and will not edit it, is this a common feeling for bloggers? And I do not say this to underline some fault with this kind of writing, because it might be perceived as if I was saying that bloggers just release early and release often, and I am sure this is not always the case, yet I wonder if the sense of being able to write something without being too worried about fulfilling academic standards is what people like me need to be able to start believing that the writing of a thesis, of a master’s thesis is bound to be full of mistakes.

    So, this is why I am not editing this message, I am sorry that punctuation is missing and that it can be difficult to read.

    Now, I had another idea about what I just wrote, feeling that there are tons of blogs and of people in your very own blog what makes me think that what I wrote is going to be read? This really takes pressure off my shoulders, and I can think something similar in relation to my thesis, I want it to be worth reading, yet it is better to stop believing that the audience of one’s thesis is going to be greater than 4 or 5 people, 4 or 5 people , who actually do have to read it.

    Anyway, Owen, I hope this post can help you as much as it did help me. The fact that you wrote this in November and that it is March and that I have not really started this process let’s me feel somehow ok, I could be worried yet I know that the process will begin and will finish when I am ready. When does one feel ready to accept one’s fieldwork as it is? When does one realize that successful fieldwork does not just happens when we can follow the thesis proposal? When do we lower our sights and start writing about what we lived instead of what we hoped we had lived?

    This is the gap that I have been trying to reconcile, and it is not of course a matter of fieldwork being a rite of passage, is a matter of living and accepting fluidity or change which at the end is what we study, no? Do we, students of anthropology, study change? My own answer: Well, to study human beings is to study life and life is in motion, it changes, is fluid, perhaps this is why categories are useful, and thesis proposals, and marks, yet as much as we try to measure, to know, to control, there is something that escapes us and what I am learning slowly is that doing research is more about accepting what escaped me than what I was able to get. Nonetheless I need to write something with what I got and so now I need to accept what I got and work with it.


  2. Dear Angelica,

    Thanks for writing! It’s great to get some people from class on here. Blogging certainly has helped keep me focussed on research, as I tend to worry if I haven’t posted recently. This doesn’t mean I’m always moving in the right direction however!

    There are all sorts of standards for editing, and reasons for posting. I am always trying to fight the need for quality, to keep my blogging stress-free. If I worry about quality I censor myself too much, and ideas tend to get lost in draft form.

    Prof. Enkerli is a big advocate of the “Release Early Release Often” strategy. He calls it his battlecry even. It makes a lot of sense and can be applied to any project design, including thesis writing!

    I have been bad recently, and failed to post any of my recent writing. Soon. Very soon.

    I’d write more now, but its late and I can’t do the response justice right now.

    Oh yes, welcome to the blogsphere 🙂



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