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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
Writing a grant? Tell us the stuff

Writing a grant? Tell us the stuff

Photo by <a href="">Alexander Shenkin</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>
Photo by Alexander Shenkin on Unsplash

Many grants have I reviewed, grasshopper. This blog post is meant to give some advice on how to frame a grant effectively so it appeals to reviewers.

The first point is to look for what data scientists call “Stop words”. Stop words in data science are terms that are not going to improve the quality of information filtering, and might just involve extra computing power being used to no purpose. Typically, short, common words, such as the or is are stop words. They are not going to tell you very much. We all do this when reading, filtering out the mind clogging fluff that writers insist on putting in there. All of queer theory, for example.

In any review process, stop words are those which cause our brains to malfunction and reject your proposal. ‘Exploratory’ is one. Do not use this word any grant proposal, because it just suggests that you have not really thought out what you are actually going to do. Exploratory is what you do before you begin your proposal. You will explore the context and the data and come up with some hypothesis which can be tested. Words like explore and its equivalents suggest you are asking the reviewer to skip over the fact that you have not really planned what you are going to be doing during the research. It says there is no structure to your investigation.

Other stop words are more specific to how they are used. There are a number of overused but under specified terms kicking around the social sciences. Intersectional is one. If you tell me you’re going to be doing intersectional research, I instantly look for what exactly you are going to be doing. Often people say they are doing intersectional research, but do not really say what that is going to involve beyond, say, looking at gender, race and social class in the same data space. ‘Intersectional’ implies more than that. It implies some kind of understanding of how these different dimensions work together in some way beyond the empirical. And this is the core issue. To be plausible that needs to be shown. If a grant is going to be intersectional then that has to be built into its purpose. Analogous problems arise with ‘data’ and ‘evidence’ and especially ‘evidence led’.

The next point is more of the same. What we are looking for is how each element of the proposal works together. Theory, method, data and the team. This is the “show not tell” part. People spend a lot of time justifying why this topic matters. They then skimp over what the activity will be. Sometimes a method is named and described. But saying you are going to apply a method is not enough. What we need to know is how that method is going to be applied and how that will lead to some really nice, relevant findings. That is the “stuff”.

Think of this as all the activity that is not just taking place in your head. That is what is worth paying you for. You are a clever person and a scholar. You can do lots of work in your head. The work that is worth paying more for or paying someone else to do on your behalf such as a research assistant is what we are going to be looking for. What specific activity is going to be done in the field or with the data that relates to your driving research, puzzle or hypothesis? What constructs are going to be developed and tested? How will you know that what you are looking at is what you are looking for? What conversations are taking place about this in different venues or to different audiences? How does that help develop and elaborate on your purpose?

There are lots of ways in which that can happen. It does not have to be specifically empirical. And in fact, another error is the opposite one to what I have described above. It is an over specified grant which is just going to show what it is going to show and nothing more. The intellectual buzz is missing. Theorising, conceptual work, definitional work, examining the terms of particular disputes, this is all part of the fun. It can be outlined in a well specified way that still needs lots of room for the intellectual creativity that you want. To help with that come back to what you add as a scholar with particular ways of thinking about the issues which bring insight.

The step from looking at to looking for is what takes us from. “I am going to sit around and cogitate” to “this work will have specific direction and purpose”. That direction and purpose is key to a really compelling proposal that I am going to love. It is really effective when that excitement is coming off the page. When you give the reviewer a sense that you cannot wait to start work on this topic.

As as an example here is a grant that I produced with my colleague Irene Rafanell. We started with the purpose:

Relevance: This project examines the structuring of cybercrime as a set of knowledgeable, interactional enterprises using data collected from darknet cryptomarkets, which are sites for the sale of illicit goods and services, largely illicit drugs. It combines the fields of big data analytics, social theory and digital sociology. This is a growing area for research as crime continues to shift to online environments. Developing expertise and applicable, high impact findings in this area will demonstrate Scotland’s academic leadership in the field and contribute to the development of further research in this area.

It was for Carnegie hence the strategic “Scotland” thrown into the mix.

Then we went into the background. That took one paragraph. We then showed aims and questions:

1. Understand the structure of interaction and knowledge exchange in a set of illicit online marketplaces.
2. Develop a theoretical framework which can be applied to different online criminal marketplaces.
3. Produce several journal articles covering the theoretical, methodological and practical implications of the project.
1. How do individuals engaged in illegal activity develop their own practices, beliefs and behaviour in and through online information exchanges.
2. What co-operative dynamics are present and created via interactive online exchanges.
3. What etiquettes typify these exchanges such as ‘chatiquete’ and rules of online communication.
4. How are norms and sanctioning of norm-violation maintained and enforced

Then we went very quickly into what that would actually be done (mostly Irene here).

A framework for interaction analysis would be developed using the following coding themes:
Structuring – investigating the claims that group members make on ‘outsiders’ and the extent to which group formation may be a response to ‘pressure’ from outsiders; Investigating the communication interaction – frequent or infrequent interactions, who becomes legitimised, praised, silenced, ostracised, etc.; investigating what aspects constitute the ‘shared’ culture that facilitate such interactions.
Sanctioning – investigating how the individuals of the group sanction each other and what conditions favour such activity – that is, responses from others to individual posts; Investigating the existence of clear ‘evaluations’ to fellow members and the rejection of the ‘good’ opinions of outsiders as a signifiers of group membership.
Norming – Investigating the formation of distinctive ‘life-styles’ (shared or distinctive language which confines communicative interaction to group members sharing such ‘life-styles’) investigating if there exist, and how it emerges, a sense of members granting of ‘special’ honour of being a member of the group (status group membership granted via ‘codes of status’ in relation to attitudes, practices and knowledge about drugs intake and harm reduction practices.
And so on. I think it was this sense of a confined but achievable project that won the day. Looking back on it what was fruitful was that the method was clearly in service of our thinking. The reason I chose this project is that it stems from a theoretical purpose, drawing on interactional sociology. And also because I happen to love it and so the project has led to many interesting further works, such as an article examining emotional regulation in cybercrime communities.


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