3d– Rhetorical Strategies for Research Proposals

Now that you’ve waded through some of the issues sur­round­ing inter­est, access, and ethics, it’s time to pin­point that per­fect site. You may have sites in mind for your research, but you must also frame what you want to know. Is there some­thing about the site or com­mu­nity that is worth find­ing out? As Harry F. Wol­cott says in Ethnog­ra­phy: A Way of See­ing, “Ethnog­ra­phy begins with a researcher’s abil­ity to frame an appro­pri­ate ques­tion or to rec­og­nize what con­tri­bu­tion ethnog­ra­phy can make toward under­stand­ing some larger issue” (242).  As a researcher and writer, then, you must exam­ine the poten­tial sig­nif­i­cance of your site. That sig­nif­i­cance can be per­sonal (local) or pub­lic (global), but you have to con­sciously and actively raise ques­tions about what that sig­nif­i­cance might be.

In a research pro­posal, the researcher iden­ti­fies a research site and artic­u­lates a par­tic­u­lar thought process and plan. First, you need to brain­storm and the­o­rize about the value of your research, what your ques­tions are, and what other, broader ideas your research might be con­nected to. The research pro­posal also asks you to cre­ate a plan for your data col­lec­tion. As is the case with most research con­nected to peo­ple and com­mu­nity, things may not always go accord­ing to your plan and you may learn things (hope­fully) other than things you imag­ine you will learn, but the pro­posal is a very impor­tant piece of the process. The pro­posal asks to you ques­tion what you know, what you don’t know, what you hope to know and cre­ates a path­way for your research.

The for­mat of your ethno­graphic inquiry pro­posal fol­lows what is gen­er­ally under­stood as a pro­posal for­mat, some­thing that you can adapt to a vari­ety of con­texts, aca­d­e­mic and oth­er­wise. The cen­tral ele­ments include:

  1. a dis­cus­sion of what you hope to accom­plish with back­ground information
  2. an expla­na­tion of why the research is impor­tant to you (local) and how you have framed the cen­tral ques­tions or lines of inquiry for your research
  3. a detailed of your research plan  — when and where you will con­duct research
  4. a descrip­tion of the method­ol­ogy for your research  — how you will col­lect data
  5. a dis­cus­sion of how your research or idea or plan con­nects to the wider com­mu­nity (global) and what oth­ers have writ­ten, said, or done before you.

The pur­pose of writ­ing a research pro­posal is that it will help you clar­ify your own ideas and ques­tions.  If the pro­posal is assigned as a part of a class, it will also help your teacher pro­vide guid­ance on how to gather data from your site. Even if you haven’t been assigned a for­mal pro­posal, we advise that you walk through the steps in this sec­tion and at least sketch out the tra­jec­tory of a pro­posal so that you have a bet­ter idea of the focus of your own research.

Stu­dents often ini­tially strug­gle with the dis­cus­sion sec­tions of their research pro­pos­als. They select inter­est­ing sites, know why they are inter­ested, and are able to describe research plans and method­olo­gies, but often won­der how to think about their lines of inquiry and clearly state how their research con­nects to the wider world. As a means of guid­ing, but not pre­scrib­ing, ways to think about your research site, you can use some of the fol­low­ing ques­tions as food for thought for poten­tial inquiry before mov­ing into the writ­ing of your actual research proposal.

In com­mu­ni­ties that bring together peo­ple of seem­ingly sim­i­lar backgrounds:

How are groups are formed? What the bound­aries of the com­mu­nity? What pur­pose does the com­mu­nity serves. What issues of power, class, gen­der, gen­er­a­tion, eth­nic­ity, iden­tity, val­ues, etc. exist in the community?

In com­mu­ni­ties that bring together peo­ple of dif­fer­ent backgrounds:

Why is it so impor­tant that peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds come together? Why are you so per­son­ally inter­ested? Are there sub­groups within the com­mu­nity? Is the orga­ni­za­tion more or less accept­ing of dif­fer­ent cul­tures than more homoge­nous organizations/classes/places?

In com­mu­ni­ties of fam­ily, home, cir­cle of friends, or neighborhood:

Are you will­ing to go in with an open mind and brave heart – look crit­i­cally and not be scared or intim­i­dated? Why should oth­ers be inter­ested in your fam­ily or group of friends? Why is this group so impor­tant to you?

In com­mu­ni­ties con­nected to churches or societies:

What brings peo­ple together? How is the group sub­di­vided? How do those sub­groups func­tion? What activ­i­ties have come out of this group?  What does the group do for its mem­bers? What does it do for the larger society?

In com­mu­ni­ties con­nected to US subcultures:

How are you going to get in? Why do you care so much about this com­mu­nity? You are inter­ested, or intrigued, or want to belong to, or admire this group, but why will oth­ers? What do you think you will find?