The right tone

An ERC proposal is a balancing act where many forces need to be managed carefully to create an attractive and buyable proposition that promises a great deal but is also feasible and realistic given the timeframe and budget.  If all these forces are well managed and the proposal hits the ‘sweet spot’ described in an earlier post then I think there is a very good chance that the proposal will emerge from the pack and stand out as a competitive submission as so many of its competitors will have made some or all of the errors that I have tried to cover so far in the posts on this blog.

One important aspect to getting the balance right is the tone of voice that the writer adopts.  A good tone (personal at moments, objective at others, coaxing, persuading, declaring, pushing slightly and pointing out at all times why this is the work that the community needs given the state of play in the field) is a positive benefit to otherwise good, solid science, can really help make the case.  But it should be largely invisible, a seamless part of the way in the which a good argument is carried and completed.  Equally, a poor tone of voice can be very off putting and a barrier to both understanding and objective evaluation.  I still see too many proposals that mistake taking a clear and strongly argued position for a coercive and hectoring tone in which too many unexplained assumptions and pejorative assertions reduce the rhetorical power of the text and bring into doubt its objectivity, in fact, its status as scientific research or rigorous scholarship at all.

The humanities don’t seem to have this problem with tone of voice very much – the researchers in literature or languages or music are proposing very solid and scholarly research, mostly.  They are promising to take the knowledge of the field forward from the point where we are to a stronger one that provides better and more complete understanding of the events or phenomena under scrutiny.  Moving scholarship forward in humanities fields has very little about it that is contentious or controversial: we’ll know more, new light will be thrown, new avenues for research opened up it is what the ERC is for.

The ‘hard’ sciences, equally, don’t tend to have too many problems with finding the right tone of voice in proposals – the rules of the game in the different fields are generally commonly known and shared and very little work is needed normally to create a case to show how the accepted frontier of knowledge will be crossed and what difference doing that will make. The real task here is to create a detailed and attractive presentation of the ideas and the sell the differences that this breakthrough will make, that really give the ideas a chance to shine through a logical presentation and in a feasible project entity.  The tone of voice is rarely a problem so long as it is lively and communicative and leads the reader through from one step to another.

However in the middle (if you’ll forgive me for thinking in such broad brush strokes, between the hardest of sciences and the softest of humanities fields) is where the problems of tone are sometimes a significant barrier in the proposal.  In fields such as political sciences, history, anthropology, education, economics, law studies, sociology, environmental studies (I have worked on ERC proposals in all of these areas recently) i.e., in the social sciences, quite often the argument comes across as if the writer has ‘an axe to grind’ and the tone can be quite combative from the very first phrases of the work.

This is, I am sure, partly a result of the limitations of time and space in which these writers are used to working i.e., they generally work across large expanses of text and in so doing are able to give a sense that the ideas have time to do justice to themselves and the context in which they are set, as far as it is ever possible to saturate the context of any idea.  On a slightly more important note, I assume this often hectoring tone also stems from the fact that in many social science fields there are no commonly agreed baseline ideas and every time the writer puts pen to paper they are used to having to argue their case in a fairly aggressive way. In fact, in some sense they have to reconstruct their discourse each time they write, or at least reconfirm the foundations they are choosing to set their work down on.  If there are no laws, or at least laws in the same sense as in the harder sciences, then the process of ‘laying down the law’ needs to be done in the literal sense and tends, therefore, to be done in the more figurative and pejorative sense (that that phrase has in British English) every time a short and hard-hitting statement like a project proposal needs to be made.

This problem of continual reinvention extends to methods too.  At best some methods might seem fairer than others or likely to do some justice the research question.  However, the same methods viewed from a slightly different presupposition about the question in hand will be considered to be something like self fulfilling prophecies aimed only at finding out what the writer more or less believes to be the case and designed to be used to discover only what the writer expects to find.  Without a consensus on method it is tough going to argue that one is better than another and very difficult to establish the degree of innovativeness in taking methods forward.  There are very few, if any, experiments that set down a baseline of repeatable method leading to the same findings and so it is very difficult to argue quickly that a certain methodological approach will lead to be better conclusions than any other.  So, in the brief space of a proposal the argument can get very heated very quickly and researchers often end up taking polarised positions without the accompanying careful work that would normally put their assertions into better context and take the sting out of them.

Of course, none of this is to say that the epistemological status of the hard sciences is less contested in its deepest structures or that its laws are simply and permanently laws – even if some do get very close to being so.  For the purposes of this argument all I am saying is that for the rhetoric of proposal writing, and, in fact, the specific case of the ERC and inside of that the B1 document of five pages which is really the door opener, the harder the science the easier the job as there is so much more that can be taken as read and generally agreed and the need for argument comes in much later to the unfolding logic of the writing, if at all.

But social scientists can easily give themselves the same chances in this competition as their hard science comrades if they simply mimic their behaviours.  And the first one is to take a step back and treat the topic under consideration as a matter of the play of conflicting discourses and arguments and bodies of knowledge and power rather than as a competition between moralistic belief systems or political doctrines.  Too often the researcher and their interests become the protagonists against a hostile universe far too early in the piece.  Certainly, we want a strong individual to emerge in the appropriately heroic role that is set up by the ERC logic and proposal structures but we only want this person to come onto the stage, or at least to take centre stage after the scene has been very carefully set –the prólogos needs to be a very objective voice off.

The researcher can then position themselves as adding to knowledge and taking the community forward on the basis of the shared ground established in the first phases of the argument – it is tough to do if there is no shared ground, as so often in the social sciences, but the impression needs to be given that a shared foundation has been put in place during the opening phases of the argument.

Too often social scientists actually appear to relish the opportunity to draw attention to the divisions in their community and the injustices that they see there and their beleaguered position in it or the beleaguered position of their particular view of the world. No one is really interested in this beyond their small entourage and it is really preaching to the converted with the added problem that not many of the panel will actually come from the converted, they’ll at best be agnostic and in need of persuasion to the justice of the cause.

There is no role in the ERC for the heroic outsider unwilling to compromise – these never win, to join in with this game is the art of compromise, nothing (neither the cash nor the status) goes to the unfunded scholar who joys in the fact the he or she is misunderstood.  The ERC is actually one of the few places where large amounts of money are available to do work from radical positions and to say what you like – but you can’t always be competitive during the process of getting the cash by doing so.  Everything needs to be in abeyance, pragmatism must rule this writing exercise, a retreat into self-righteousness is a category error here as no one is listening.  It might play well in the seminar room but it is not the most competitive behaviour in this context.

In fact, the worst cases I have seen of the intrusion of the researcher into the research and of research driven by moralistic presuppositions have been in the areas of anthropology and ethnography in the study of non-European cultures.  The air of self-righteousness and moralising imperatives and pathos in these texts can be quite surprising.  I have seen texts loaded with guilt and angst about the impact of ‘Europe’, ‘The West’, ‘Western Culture’ and the desire to undo ‘Othering’ and to discover the truth hidden in more ‘Authentic’ cultures that the work proposed is, when looked a closely, hardly research at all and probably not science.

So, depersonalise the arguments, remove all the binary oppositions (as the evaluator will take the contrary one out of sheer bloodymindness if they are posed), reduce the level of controversy and pathos and increase the focus on what is known and shared and how this work will take some valuable steps forward to the benefit of everyone in that community and beyond.