Tips for qualitative researchers seeking funding – what NOT to leave out of your grant applications

It is grant reviewing season and I’ve been reading through some very interesting applications from some accomplished qualitative researchers in the social sciences and media studies. The rationale and background for projects are usually very well described and justified, as are the track records of the applicants.

But I’ve seen some common areas across several of the applications that need more detail. These are:

  1. There is often not enough (or sometimes even any) information about the approach taken to analysing the qualitative data you are collecting. Simply saying you are ‘using NVivo to analyse the data’ and leaving it at that is not enough. NVivo seems to have become a magic word to use to explain and justify qualitative data analysis. But it is just a data management tool. I want to know what you are going to do with it. There are many approaches to analysing qualitative data. Which approach are you using? Have you had previous experience with this approach? Please justify the reason for your approach and provide some information about what you will be looking for in the data, and why.
  2. If you are recruiting research participants for interviews, focus groups or other types of participation, please provide details of whether you have used your recruitment methods before and how successful they were. I know from experience that recruiting participants can be difficult and time-consuming, and achieving this successfully is crucial to the feasibility of your project. I would like you to explain to me more carefully how you are going to find people, and how you will keep them involved if they are required for more than one activity or you are asking them to be involved over quite a long time in the project.
  3. This issue is particularly important if you are proposing to recruit hard-to-reach or marginalised social groups, and also high-status groups (such as busy professionals, for whom time is money). Here you need to provide even more information about how you will successfully recruit these participants and commit them to be involved. What will persuade them to be part of your study?
  4. Which leads on to the ethics of recruiting participants from marginalised groups, or those you wish to engage in discussions about potentially distressing experiences. How will you persuade these people to want to speak to you? How will you protect them from harm, if you are raising sensitive and distressing issues and inviting them to discuss them with you? How will you protect yourself and other researchers involved in the project from the distress you may yourselves feel at discussing sensitive and very personal issues which may be very sad or otherwise confronting for all involved? I am concerned to see that often these very important issues are not discussed in enough detail, or are even glossed over, as if the applicants do not consider them important or have not considered their implications.
  5. Many qualitative researchers now make statements suggesting that their research will have impact outside universities. Yet here again, often not enough fine details are provided to convince assessors and funders how feasible these claims are. Please tell us more about how this impact will be achieved.
  6. And finally … many major funding bodies now mandate that the publications generated from the projects they fund should be made available open access. Yet very few qualitative researchers demonstrate any awareness of this, or describe how they will meet these requirements. Here again, more detail is required. Will you be depositing your publications into your university’s e-repository? Will you need to ask for funding in your budget to pay journals to publish your accepted manuscript as open access? Please explain your strategy.

Design sociology part 4: wrapping up

This is the last in my series of posts introducing design sociology, following part 1 (introduction), part 2 (terms and approaches) and part 3 (critical, speculative and ludic design). For an article outlining a project in which Mike Michael and I used design sociology, see here (and an example of one of the design tasks we used is shown to the right). design sociology

Design sociology approaches offer many opportunities for sociologists to expand their research horizons, particularly in relation to applied, practice-based, sociomaterial and future-oriented research. There are several compelling reasons why they should begin to do so. Design sociology can bring together theory and practice in exciting ways. It can be viewed as one element of the ‘live sociology’ to which Back (2012) refers, in which new ways of investigating social worlds are developed.

One of the strongest contributions that design sociology can make is to inspire creative thinking not only for sociologists but also for people, groups or organisations outside academia who take part in their research, developing the multiple vantage points, new ways of telling and showing, and imaginative responses to which Back refers in his vision for live sociology. It also offers a route for productive multidisciplinary collaborations, in which sociology researchers can work with people in design, HCI and anthropology, among others, in exchanging and building on their respective areas of expertise.

Further, in their incorporation of the participation of publics, design-oriented approaches work towards many sociologists’ desire to work with communities in co-research activities and to disseminate their research widely. Design sociology can contribute to research that has broad applications. In many wealthy nations, sociologists and other social researchers are being called upon to orient their research more towards potential users outside the academy. Policy developments in higher education such as the ‘impact’ and ‘innovation’ agendas, measurements of engagement with stakeholders and publics and associated changes in programs for funding research and universities have led to the need for academic researchers to reconsider their research topics, methods and collaborators.

Design sociology can include three different, but interrelated, perspectives (based on Gunn and Donovan’s  (2012) useful tripartite definition of design anthropology). First, it can engage in the sociology of design: that is, sociological research directed at identifying design cultures, or the discursive and material practices which professional designers enact, and the broader sociocultural and political contexts in which design as a way of thinking and a profession is situated. This approach means devoting attention to the ideas, design artefacts and other material objects designers use in their working practices, as well as the spaces and places in which they work. Second, design sociology can involve conducting research through design: that is, by using design methods and concepts as research devices to generate insights into other topics. Both approaches acknowledge the social worlds and material practices of designers and the other participants who might work with them, as well as those of the end-users of designed objects and systems.

Third, design sociology will also often need to embrace sociology with design. Sociologists have not been trained to think in ‘designerly’ ways. Most need help to conceptualise how to go about incorporating design perspectives into their research: and this means collaboration outside sociology. Thus far, of the small number of sociologists who have experimented with design research, most have training in design as well as sociology or have used designers as consultants, or worked on multidisciplinary research teams including designers or HCI researchers. Sociologists who want to incorporate design research approaches but have little hands-on experience of them may need to consider making connections with academics working in design or design anthropology or commission design consultants who have experience in the types of design research outlined here to work with them in planning and executing their projects.

Whichever design sociology approach is taken up, designed phenomena should be positioned as dynamic and contingent assemblages of humans and nonhumans, including ideas, practices, things, spaces and places. Design sociology approaches offer a way of developing greater insights into what people do with objects and systems, such as those involved in digital technologies, and not just what they say they do. Furthermore, they can build on these insights to develop future-oriented perspectives that can contribute to the further development and improvements in the design of objects and systems, including making recommendations. Design sociology can contribute more formative and conceptual research that can contribute to the design process by uncovering the meanings and uses of objects or systems that are already part of everyday lives, or by asking people to consider or generate new ideas about future objects or systems before they have entered everyday life. As such, this research can be helpful in shaping design decisions, both during the design process and when the design is tested.

An important element of a sociological approach to design methods to consider is that of multiple vantage points and contestation. The sociology of expectations and of public engagements with science and technology, for example, often involve identifying disputes and controversies arising from debates about futures (Michael, 2017; Wilkie et al., 2017). This recognition of the possibility of contestation (often between publics and government or big business) remains important to the development of design sociology approaches. For example, rather than assuming that all stakeholders involving in a participatory design process will share imaginaries of the future, a critical sociological approach will be alive to the possibilities of conflict and contestation. The reasons for differences in future imaginaries can be important in understanding the vested interests and politics of the different groups involved.

To conclude, design sociology offers one direction for sociologists to think through how they might orient their research to meet these new expectations and demands in ways that also allow them to maintain their broader intellectual interests in the meanings and practices of social identities, social relationships and social institutions. Depending on how it is applied, design sociology can be considered as a method for social critique and the identification of social inequalities, disadvantage and marginalisation. It can be a form of participatory social research or action research. Design sociology research can also be a way of contributing to the development of new technologies and systems for the benefit of communities, activist groups, government agencies or industry. In many cases, more than one of these outcomes can be achieved.


Back L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review 60: 18-39.

Gunn W and Donovan J. (2012) Design anthropology: an introduction. Design and anthropology. London: Ashgate, 1-16.

Michael M. (2017) Enacting Big Futures, Little Futures: toward an ecology of futures. The Sociological Review online ahead of print.

Wilkie A, Savransky M and Rosengarten M. (2017) Introduction: beyond the impasse of the present. In: Wilkie A, Savranksy M and Rosengarten M (eds) Speculative Research: the Lure of Possible Futures. London: Routledge.