An Archaeology of Funding Applications

As I was going over my folders recently in search of a paragraph I remembered writing at some point and of which I lost track, I came across something interesting. It was a letter I sent to the head of a funding body to which I applied for some research funding a year or so ago.

I was upset when I wrote this letter; my application has just been rejected. But my dismay at this professional failure was overshadowed, I recall, by the reasons for the rejection, as these were specified by my application’s reviewer. These stem out for my response letter, so there is really no need to repeat them. In reading the referee’s comments now, by the way, I do see they weren’t really all that bad. But they were certainly misinformed. And so my ‘letter of complaint’ is still, I feel, quite valid.

I have no real reason to put it up here, except that when reading it now, I found it rather enjoyable. A pretty decent piece of writing, if I may say so myself. A shame that only one person would get to read it, I thought (especially since that person, namely the head of the funding body, has brushed it aside with calm). And yes, it does say something, perhaps, about the decision-making processes that go behind research funding. Not that they’re necessarily bad. But maybe, sometimes, they might be just a bit misinformed.

Dear sir / madam,

I am writing to you with regards to the resubmission of my grant proposal entitled “Experiencing Emotion and Emotional Experiences among Individuals with Autism”. I would like to humbly urge the committee to reconsider its decision to reject the grant proposal, for the reasons stated below.

While I honestly appreciate the reviewer’s comments, I would like to express my sincere doubt as to whether he/she is sufficiently familiar with the field of autism to reach a qualified evaluation of the worth of my proposal, and its possible feasibility and contribution to the field in question.

Autism is a spectrum of conditions with differing levels of severity and social functioning. In his/her review, the reviewer uses the term “highly autistic” twice, and once uses “severely autistic”; I myself have not used neither of these in my proposal! My proposal merely expresses a desire to study autistic people. Indeed, if I only meant to include severely autistic participants, some reformulations of the proposal would be in order, but that was never my intention. I fear the entire evaluation of my proposal was made on the basis of this very false reading.

Furthermore, I must admit that I was somewhat shocked to learn that according to the reviewer, “…in severely autistic individuals, emotions are a “black box” that scientists, therapists, teachers, and parents struggle to untangle”. It would appear that two decades of autism self-advocacy and activism, promoting notions of diversity and understanding, and combating prevalent stereotypes– have all escaped the reviewer entirely. I would therefore like to offer a crucial correction:

While it is certainly true that managing, discerning, expressing and interpreting emotions may pose considerable challenges for autistic people, to argue that their emotions are in any way a “black box” is alarmingly misinformed, and frighteningly reminiscent of Bruno Bettleheim’s destructive and long abandoned “empty fortress” metaphor (1967). I urge the committee to find one recent work by a researcher of autism that would even come close to making such an unfounded claim.

Having studied autism and engaging in meaningful conversations with autistic individuals for nearly two years now, I can state without doubt that many (although not all) adults with autism are reflexive, communicative, and articulate social agents, given the right conditions. They are thus in a very good position to speak and reflect about their emotional states and experiences – and indeed about their difficulties with emotions. In fact, they are in a better position to do so than anyone else is, and they should be given a chance to express their expertise, and to contribute to the academic discourse which too often revolves around them, but fails to include them.

This is particularly true given the unfortunately popular prejudice that emotional experiences of autistic people are not even worth studying, because they are trapped in some imaginary, impenetrable box (and my theoretical perspective views emotions as intrinsically relational… how could a box hold a connection?)

Yes, emotions are complex, in autistics and neurotypicals alike. Yes, neither the natural sciences nor the social sciences have any definitive answers as to what emotions “are” (although several anthropologists have developed fantastic theories to that extent). But should that prevent us from studying them, from trying to make sense of them, from appreciating their importance in people’s lives? Also, since when do social anthropologists shy away from difficult questions, simply because “scientists, therapists, teachers, and parents” struggle with their meaning? If anything, that is in itself a good enough reason to do research!

According to the reviewer, “there is a huge literature regarding idioms of distress, for example, that should be taken into consideration.” Why? Why is it assumed that distress must be a prominent theme in this work? There is an equally large body of literature on love, friendship, sexual attraction, pride, or compassion; and none of which were explicitly mentioned in my proposal, which deals with emotional states at large. Distress? Yes, of course, that too. But this particular emotional state will only outweigh others in my work if it is found to outweigh others in my participants’ lives. My preliminary research shows this is not the case.

Finally, the reviewer questions whether “simply following subjects through their online activities or attending an autistic conference” will provide me with sufficient and reliable ethnographic data. My response is simple; No, it will not. That is why many more methods – which the reviewer for some reason chooses to ignore completely – are mentioned and elaborated on in my proposal. They include accompanying interlocutors in their daily lives, i.e. family life, work, studies, and autism related social activities, while forming meaningful relationships with them based on mutual respect; as well as conducting semi-structured in-depth interviews. The online aspect of my research is crucial and exciting – but is quite far from being my main source of data. Why would the reviewer ignore all these? I honestly do not know.

I appreciate that I am still in the beginning of my career, and still have a lot to learn. I acknowledge that my proposal is not perfect, and might be improved in various ways. I respect the opinions of those with more knowledge and experience than I. However, in this case I feel my hard work was not taken under serious consideration, and was rejected offhandedly due to a lack of familiarity with the field of study in question. I therefore respectfully ask that my proposal goes to the next stage of selection, to be read and judged by someone more engaged with the anthropological study of autism and/or emotions. Thank you, and I look forward to hearing back from you soon.

Best regards,

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