Attraction and repulsion are two points on a triangle. Distraction is the third.

David Schurman Wallace at the Paris Review:

Despite all the hand-wringing about distraction, it’s asked less often what it is that we want to attend to in the first place (or, if answered, numbingly conventional—we want to “be more productive”). Today, being distracted usually has a negative connotation, because it most often means “not working,” whether you’re watching the World Cup from a browser window stashed behind your spreadsheet or you’ve decided to go to the bar on a Tuesday night instead of staying in and writing your three hundred words or polishing your presentation or organizing your sock drawer. A common idea of distraction presupposes that you’re turning away from something more important that you ought to be paying attention to instead. And you ought to be working all the time.

Archive of Articles on 2023 Cuts at Universities Across Aotearoa New Zealand

If you have any links that can be added, please email me.
(Last updated 19 September)


Write the Prime Minister, Minister of Education, and Minister of Finance

Saving Tertiary Petition

Stop the Cuts! TEU Petition

News Stories

Fear of ‘hasty’ decisions by Victoria University ahead of restructure” (The Post, September 18)

Iconic Kiwi actor laments ‘insulting’ proposed Vic Uni theatre cuts” (1News, September 10)

Tertiary Education Commission refused to defer university funding clawbacks – briefing” (RNZ, August 31)

Falling student numbers to take another bite out of tertiary sector funding” (The Post, August 31)

Officials want even more job cuts at Te Pūkenga, briefing shows” (RNZ, 30 August)

Massey axes Auckland nursing course for new students: ‘I never would have moved’” (Stuff, August 30)

Secondary school teacher training to continue at Victoria University of Wellington” (Stuff, August 18)

It’s Squid Game at VUW after 74 Staff Members Granted Voluntary Redundancy” (Salient, August 14)

Cuts to Theatre: Undervaluing an Industry” (Salient, August 7)

University funding woes threaten outspoken researchers and specialised courses they teach” (NZ Herald, August 4)

Staff fume as downsizing university plans offshore campus” (Times Higher Education, August 3)

74 people take voluntary redundancy at Victoria University of Wellington amidst financial concerns” (NZ Herald, August 2)

Universities have more managers and admin staff than academics: report” (RNZ, August 2)

“New Zealand course cuts mean ‘catastrophic’ loss of Asia know-how” (Times Higher Education, August 2)

UC students ‘stand in solidarity’ with protesters holding ‘funeral’ for tertiary education” (The Post, August 1)

Will university arts cuts strip talent from the creative capital?” (The Post, July 29)

Another protest as outcome of voluntary redundancies at Victoria University looms” (The Post, July 26)

‘Time to fix university funding,’ says UNZ head” (Research Professional News, July 26)

Fears speech-language therapist shortage could hit crisis levels if Massey University cans key degree” (Newshub, July 24)

NZSM Refuses to Face the Music” (Salient, July 24)

University of Waikato reveals $16.8 million deficit for 2022” (NZ Herald, July 23)

University of Waikato reveals $16.8 million deficit for 2022” (RNZ, July 23)

‘It destroys the value of university’ – Massey staff take stand against cuts” (RNZ, July 21)

‘Please don’t let it happen’: Protesters front up to Massey University council over restructures” (RNZ, July 21)

University of Otago makes more than 100 staff redundant in cost-cutting bid” (RNZ, July 20)

Union angered after Massey University calls for more than 120 redundancies” (Stuff, July 13)

Orchestra bursts into song in protest at Victoria University” (TVNZ 1News, July 13)

Massey University staff ‘furious’ about further cuts – union” (TVNZ 1News, July 12)

Universities’ proposed language cuts threaten New Zealand’s interests, academics warn” (RNZ, July 12)

Hundreds of Proposed Job Losses, Programmes to be Cut, and a Government Funding Boost: What the Fuck is Happening at VUW?” (Salient, July 10)

“The Battle Is Far From Over” – University Arts Education Still Under Threat” (The Big Idea, July 6)

Nearly 200 University of Otago staff apply for redundancy” (Otago Daily Times, July 2)


New Zealand university funding boost “won’t solve all problems”” (The PIE News, June 30)

Third university signals big job cuts despite new funding” (Stuff, June 29)

Staff fear big job cuts as Massey University reconsiders courses with low enrolments” (RNZ, June 29)

The Front Page: Could universities push up fees to make their businesses more sustainable?” (NZ Herald, June 28)

New Zealand’s Oldest University Theatre Programme Under Threat” (The Theatre Times, June 28)

Uni staff the ‘backbone of this country’, suffering in proposed cuts – union” (RNZ, June 28)

Two university Vice-Chancellors calling for cooperation to end funding woes” (RNZ, June 28)

Otago Uni cuts still on agenda” (Otago Daily Times, June 28)

Luxon on university funding” (RNZ, June 28)

Christopher Luxon criticises slow return of international students” (RNZ, June 28)

New Zealand university funding lifeline ‘welcome but not enough’” (The Guardian, June 28)

Job cuts to go ahead at Victoria University” (RNZ, June 28)

“‘Throwing money at everything’: Uni bail out blamed on Covid response” (1News, June 27)

New Zealand boosts tertiary funding as universities struggle” (Reuters, June 27)

Government provides significant extra support to universities and other degree providers” [Press Release] (, June 27)

Govt pumps extra $128m into cash-strapped universities, tertiary institutions in bid to stave off job cuts” (NZ Herald, June 27)

Big job losses at Victoria and Otago universities to go ahead despite more government funding” (RNZ, June 27)

The Panel with Selwyn Manning and Victoria MacLennan (Part One) Today on the Panel, Wallace and panellists Selwyn Manning and Victoria MacLennan discuss the funds that will be made available to cash-strapped universities.” (RNZ, June 27)

Major job losses for universities despite govt rescue package” (RNZ, June 27)

Extra government funding for cash-strapped universities” (Wellington.Scoop, June 27)

Political parties back extra tertiary education funding” (RNZ, June 27)

$128m lifeline for struggling universities to be spread across all institutes” (The Spinoff, June 27)

$128 million bail-out for struggling tertiary sector” (Stuff, June 27)

Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni dismisses criticism government isn’t funding universities properly” (RNZ, June 27)

Government to throw lifeline to struggling universities, fears ‘NZ will be a poorer place’ if courses, staff aren’t saved” (Newshub, June 27)

Carmel Sepuloni: Govt announcement to help universities coming this afternoon” (Newstalk ZB, June 27)

Rescue package for universities” (RNZ, June 27)

Government poised to bailout struggling universities facing hundreds of job losses, claims of underfunding” (NZ Herald, June 26)

Government poised to announce major bailout package for universities on brink” (Newshub, June 26)

Proposed staff cuts at the New Zealand School of Music” (RNZ, June 26)

Cuts at Victoria University w/ Senior Lecturer of Education Dr Margaret Gleeson and Lecturer in Theatre Dr James Wenley: 26 June, 2023” (95bFM, June 26)

‘Anguish and anger’: Victoria University council urged to push for reform over cuts” (Stuff, June 26)

DCC may go into bat for university” (Otago Daily Times, June 24) (PDF)

‘System just can’t go on’: Inside NZ’s university crisis” (The Post, June 24) (PDF)

Financial problems growing at Victoria University” (RNZ, June 24)

Tertiary Education Commission shot down suggestion from universities to co-ordinate cuts” (The Post, June 23) (PDF)

Victoria University proposed cuts: Vice-chancellor says funding unsustainable” (RNZ, June 23)

A traumatic time for tertiary education” (The Spinoff, June 23)

All the university courses on the chopping block” (The Spinoff, June 23)

Teacher shortage in capital will take another hit if university axes training course, principal warns” (RNZ, June 23)

Cutting teacher training will have major impacts – uni lecturer” (RNZ, June 22)

Ex-CFO ‘confident’ uni’s savings target will be met” (Otago Daily Times, June 22)

Fears Victoria University restructure may spell loss of ‘world-leading’ geoscience expertise” (NZ Herald, June 22)

The Panel with David Farrar and Niki Bezzant (Part One)” [From 9:12] (RNZ, June 22)

Interest in Asia needs to be backed up with study of languages, culture, experts say” (RNZ, June 22)

Staff and students protest as further details of Vic Uni job and course cuts revealed” (The Post, June 22) (PDF)

Dismay at scale of Victoria University planned cuts” (RNZ, June 22)

Job cuts at Victoria University spark shock and disbelief” (RNZ, June 22)

Victoria University confirms 229 jobs on the line, eight courses could be discontinued” (NZ Herald, June 21)

‘Tragic’ blow for staff as Victoria University proposed cuts to jobs and entire subjects” (RNZ, June 21)

Courses to be cut at Vic include geography, teaching, languages” (Stuff, June 21)

Labour MP troubled by plans to cut courses and jobs at VUW” (Wellington.Scoop, June 19)

Victoria Uni’s multimillion-dollar building projects ‘on pause’ amid huge deficit” (The Post, June 17) (PDF)

Massey University policies from a ‘secret society’ – academic board voices opposition” (Stuff, June 15)

University redundancies undermine Government’s own science strategy – academic” (RNZ, June 14)

Cash-strapped Waikato University has paid former cabinet minister Steven Joyce nearly $1 million” (Stuff, June 13)

Mayor, ex-PM join call for Government to ‘Save Tertiary Education’” (Stuff, June 12)

Oh, the Humanities: Vic Uni alumni rally to support threatened arts courses” (The Post, June 10)

Majority of universities report deficit for 2022, call for government to reinvest savings” (RNZ, June 9)

Universities have worst financial year on record in 2022” (RNZ, June 9)

Victoria University proposes cuts to religious studies programme” (RNZ, June 9)

‘A perfect storm’: inside the decline in student numbers at the University of Otago” (Stuff, June 8)

Massey University staff told to clear buildings’ rat traps” (Stuff, June 8)

Masters programmes at risk of cuts” (Otago Daily Times, June 8)

The university funding shortfall with no easy fix” (RNZ, June 8)

University of Otago programmes at risk of cuts begin to emerge” (Stuff, June 8)

University staff feel ignored over Massey restructure decision” (Stuff, June 8)

Protests against university staff cuts in New Zealand” (World Socialist Website, June 6)

University of Waikato proposing staff cuts to IT, maths departments” (Stuff, June 6)

Government can’t stop University of Otago cutting staff – PM” (RNZ, June 2)

PM greeted with protest at university” (Otago Daily Times, June 2)

“‘Stealing from the future’: Victoria University students, academics rally against proposed cuts” (Stuff, June 2)

SPECIAL REPORT – Job Cuts at Vic” (The Salient Unedited Sessions, June 1)

Top scientist Mike Joy loses role at Victoria University” (NZ Herald, May 31)

Protect Otago protest group to hold first rally” (Otago Daily Times, May 30)

Blame game over why hundreds of Victoria Uni jobs are now on the line” (The Post, May 27)

Looming uni debt plight ‘considerable’” (Otago Daily Times, May 27)

Victoria Uni vice-chancellor on axing up to 260 jobs” (RNZ, May 26)

$355 Million for Tertiary Sector Reappropriated” (The Critic, May 25)

Investigation: Uni budget gap deliberately omitted” (Otago Daily Times, May 25)

More university cuts as Victoria Uni announces up to 250 jobs at risk” (RNZ, May 25)

Union fights for employees facing Victoria University job cuts” (RNZ, May 25)

Hundreds of jobs facing the chop at Victoria University due to multimillion dollar loss” (NZ Herald, May 24)

Up to 260 jobs may go at Victoria University to address massive deficit” (Stuff, May 24)

Up to 260 VUW staff facing job losses due to $33M financial hole(Salient, May 24)

OUSA, TEU Protest Staff Cuts” (The Critic, May 9)

‘We have a target on our backs’: University of Otago staff protest over hundreds of possible job cuts” (Stuff, May 9)

VUW Not Ruling Out Staff Cuts Following Otago Debacle” (Salient, May 1)

Academic board ‘unequivocally’ opposed to Massey University restructure” (Stuff, April 25)

Crushing the Critic and Conscience” (The Critic, April 23)

Bosses to blame, say Otago University staff” (Otago Daily Times, April 22)

Concerns about educational delivery, outcomes at Otago Univeristy as it braces for significant redundancies” (Newshub, April 21)

Otago University ‘just doesn’t have any financial resilience’ – union” (RNZ, April 21)

Union shocked by the number of jobs potentially on the chopping block at Otago Uni” (Newstalk ZB, April 21)

Several hundred jobs to go at University of Otago as student numbers plunge” (Stuff, April 20)

‘Terrible day for Dunedin’: Uni facing hundreds of job cuts” (Otago Daily Times, April 20)

University of Otago considering ‘several hundred’ redundancies” (Newstalk ZB, April 20)

‘Confronting’ student enrolment figures as Victoria University reports $15.7m deficit” (Stuff, Feb 13)

Op-Eds / Open Letters

Richard Shaw, “A changing world needs arts and social science graduates more than ever – just ask business leaders” (The Conversation, July 25)

Jonathan Boston, “The crisis in tertiary education caused by inadequate funding” (The Newsroom, July 13)

James Ladanyi, “The ‘Bugger All’ B.A. Fallacy: The Importance Of Keeping The Arts In Academia” (The Big Idea, July 13)

James Cain, “Inside the vital secondary teachers programme at Victoria University of Wellington” (July 13)

Cather Simpson, “University cuts threaten New Zealand’s long-term economic growth” (July 6, NZ Herald)

Teuila Fuatai, “Cutting back on inclusion” (E-Tangata, July 2)

Peter Walls, “Giving universities autonomy to slash and burn does not serve the national interest” (The Spinoff, June 30)

Nicole Gaston, “Bailout, Band-Aid or back to basics? 3 questions NZ’s university funding review must ask” (The Conversation, June 28)

Gianna Schwanecke, “Why the $128 million tertiary funding boost won’t be enough” (The Post, June 28)

Nik Taylor and Zoei Sutton, “Teaching and working in universities today: ‘Battered and broken. I must get out’” (NZ Herald, June 27)

Nicola Hyland, “Killing the human in humanities: What Victoria University’s cuts will do to theatre” (The Spinoff, June 26)

Robet Ayson and David Capie, “Weaker universities will diminish New Zealand’s international resilience” (NZ Herald, June 26)

Eddie Clark, “Labour’s silence on tertiary education cuts is deafening” (The Post, June 26)

Vernon Small, “Faced with tertiary sector challenges, Government should learn health’s lessons” (Stuff, June 25)

Failing Science, Government-style” (Otago Daily Times, June 24) (PDF)

Caitlin Cherry, “Letter from The Post editor – a former Victoria University student” (The Post, June 24) (PDF)

James Wenley, ““Unforgivable Attack” – Latest Blow In Gutting Of NZ Theatre Education” (The Big Idea, June 22)

Emma Maguire, “Where is your rage now?” (June 22)

Quintin Jane, “Cuts harming many for little gain” (Otago Daily Times, June 20)

Catherine Abou-Nemeh, “In underfunding universities, we have so much to lose” (The Newsroom, June 20)

Nicola Gaston, “Starved of funds and vision, struggling universities put NZ’s entire research strategy at risk” (The Conversation, June 19)

Stephen Epstein and Shin Takahashi, “Asia is vital to NZ’s future, except in our universities” (Stuff, June 16)

Julie de Bres, “What linguistics does for Aotearoa” (The Spinoff, June 15)

Morgan Godfery, “Labour then broke it, Labour now could fix it” (Stuff, June 15)

Ananish Chaudhuri, “The crisis in our universities” (The Newsroom, June 14)

Daniel Benson-Guiu, “Hipkins offered nothing when university needs support, funding” (Otago Daily Times, June 12)

Colin Anderson, “Time for radical action to save our universities” (Stuff, June 9)

“Opinion: New Zealand’s universities face an identity crisis” (

Cherie Chu-Fuluifaga, “Where every voice is heard…” (June 6)

Steven Joyce, “Govt selling our future short by starving universities” (NZ Herald, June 3)

Nicola Gaston, “When downsizing means destroying our universities” (The Spinoff, May 31)

Rewi Newnham, “Do we even care about our universities?” (The Press, May 30)

Emma Maguire, “Why do we always have to lose the humanities?” (May 25)

Vita Molyneux, “Why a Bachelor of Arts degree is a priority not a punchline” (NZ Herald, May 25)

Brian S. Roper, “Protect Otago – Save Our University!” (ISO Aotearoa, May 8)

Jess Ye, “Running Universities as Businesses is Killing Tertiary Education” (Salient, May 8)

Quintin Jane, “The government’s ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to universities is failing a generation” (The Spinoff, April 28)

Twitter Accounts



Tertiary Education Union – VUW Branch

Tertiary Education Union – Otago Branch

Students Against Cuts (VUW)

Protect Otago Against Cuts


My Twitter list of VUW-related accounts

Statements of Support

Applied Linguistics in Aotearoa New Zealand

Geoscience Society of New Zealand

New Zealand Association of Language Teachers

New Zealand Association of Scientists (2)

New Zealand Institute of Chemistry

New Zealand Institute of Physics

Raymond Williams Society of Japan


The state of our universities.” (Sharon Murdoch on Twitter, June 28)

How to approach a research proposal: The Literature Review

This is a follow-up to my earlier post “How to approach a research proposal: Writing Questions.” In that entry, I laid out a dynamic hierarchy of questions—conceptual questions, research questions, and field questions—which define the logical structure of a research proposal. They also begin to establish the scholarly contribution and the intellectual context of a research project. Below, I’ll be drawing on the question types I introduced in my earlier post.

The first few pages of a research proposal will be devoted to introducing and explaining your research questions, and introducing or at least suggesting your conceptual and field questions.

After the research proposal has done this, it must spend some time explaining what those questions are about, and the broader empirical and academic context in which the proposal is asking those questions. These things are done in the literature review.

A literature review is a scoping exercise that draws together the scholarship relevant to your project in order to contextualize your questions, by synthesizing the most important related studies in your field. As a proposal writer, it is your job to help your reader understand why anyone would ask the questions you are asking and to show them that (a) these questions are relevant and (b) answerable in the ways you are proposing to answer them. The literature shows us this in relation to the scholarship that has gone before yours. (Thanks to my colleague Eli Elinoff for this articulation.)

There is a whole process to putting together a literature review, but I’m going to limit what I say below to the basic functions of a literature review section in a research proposal.

What the Literature Review is not

Less experienced students often labor under misconceptions of what a literature review in a proposal is, and teachers often assume that students will know what a literature review is without much explicit guidance. So let’s address some common misconceptions.

A literature review is not a record of the things that you have read in preparing your proposal. Students will sometimes write a literature review as though they are providing proof that they have read a sufficient number of books and articles related to their research topic. This tends to lead to pieces of writing that list and summarize some number of sources, without making any strong or clear claims about any of them. But just as most other pieces of academic writing, a literature review must have an argument about the literature that is novel in some respect. (In the case of a research proposal, the argument of a literature review will be about how certain sources or groups of sources inform and justify the proposal’s questions and research plan.)

A literature review is not exhaustive. Just as a research project cannot be about every single thing of any possible relevance, a literature review in a proposal cannot be about every single source of any possible relevance. It must represent a careful and considered selection of the most relevant ones. In preparing for a literature review, you will want to be as exhaustive as possible, but in the actual written product, you must make choices about what belongs and what can be left out. These selections should be informed by the arguments that the literature review is trying to make, and therefore the questions at the center of the proposal.

A literature review is not a book review. In a book review, the purpose is to assess the merits and shortcomings of a book or other piece of academic writing on a wide range of criteria—for example, quality of the argument or data, clarity of writing, significance of contribution to an important debate or discussion, and so on. The use of books and other sources in a literature review must be both more limited and more sharply focused. Each individual source should only be discussed to the extent required to establish its relevance to the literature review’s argument.

Relatedly, a literature review is not a place to state your personal opinions about a book or article. You should not say whether you did or didn’t like a book. This is the wrong framework to use to explain its value in a literature review, because the point of a literature review is to situate sources in relation to each other and, ultimately, to your own research project. When you express a like/dislike opinion about a book, you show the reader that you are only situating it in relation to yourself.

The Functions of a Literature Review

At times, a literature review may be required to do one or more of the above things. Some departments may require broader “surveys of the literature” as part of a Ph.D. proposal, but in many cases, a more focused text is desirable. In my view, a literature review should perform four main functions. As I’ll explain, some of these functions will be addressed in part in other sections of a proposal, but can also be included in a literature review.

The first function of a literature review is to establish that your project and questions are likely to be successful and lead to interesting insights. It does this by explaining how, given similar conceptual questions and empirical foci, other anthropologists or academics have posed and answered their own research questions. Some of these research questions and projects will be similar to yours. By explaining the significance of the work of these adjacent scholars, the literature review can establish an academic justification for your own research project. This is your “academic” or “scholarly contribution.” It is also the main argument of your literature review.

Through your selection of these adjacent scholars, the literature review also fulfills a second function, which is to communicate the relevant intellectual context of your research to the reader. For any given conceptual question, you can probably imagine many different scholars asking all kinds of research questions and answering them through a great range of projects. Your literature review will show which subset of these scholars have similar questions, hypotheses, and methods to you. This is what an anthropologist wants to know, when they ask which scholars you are “in conversation with.”

The third function of a literature review is to show how your research is “in conversation” with these adjacent scholars. In anthropology, it will be rare you will do exactly the same project as another anthropologist has done in the past—it will differ in terms of method, theory, or field site. This means that you must explain the relationships between your work and the work of others. This is usually done by introducing a set of contrasts and similarities.

For instance, your project may have similar research questions but explore them in a new field site. This is “empirical novelty”, that is, what makes your work new or unique is that it is about a place or situation that nobody has looked at before: “Anthropologists have studied burial practices in places X and Y, but nobody knows what they are in Z.”

Or, your project may have different research questions in a similar field site, that is, it explores a new relationship in a known field site: “Anthropologists 1, 2, and 3 have understood ceremony A in place X to be a rite of passage, but following 4, 5, and 6, I ask how these ceremonies may be related neoliberalization.”

In most cases, you should have a bit of literature speaking to both sides of the novelty/similarity contrast: “Anthropologist 1, 2, and 3 have argued that ceremony Y in place X is a rite of passage that ensures the continuity of gerontocratic society. However, anthropologists 4, 5, and 6 have shown that ceremonies similar to A in places Y and Z are also linked to neoliberalization.”

By doing this, you also provide justification for your own hypothesis. If your research project is about showing that ceremony A is linked to neoliberalization, then being able to show that others have shown this link for similar ceremonies helps justify the importance of your own research, and show that other academics are going to see the value of your work.

The fourth function of a literature review is to bring clarity to important terms. If you’ve stated that 1, 2, and 3 argue that a certain type of ceremony is linked to neoliberalization, then you should explain how they define “neoliberalization,” as well as “ceremony.” What phenomena constitute neoliberalization in their view? What other authors do they draw on to formulate their definition? What alternative definitions are there, and why is theirs more useful?

The literature review may also be where you explain key terms from the field: who and what are the “who” and “what” of your research questions? Some of this may take place in a different section, but in any case, you will need to explain somewhere how you define a particular community, and something about their history as a community, and introduce how other scholars have defined and studied that community. You might also add your own preliminary or past research here. The point is to provide whatever a reader who is informed about anthropology but may be naive about your particular interests what they need to know in order to understand what you want to do.


It’s important to note that, throughout this, we’ve been talking about connections between your proposal and the existing literature that are made at the level of research question. In most cases, your literature review should not bring in sources that only speak to your work at the conceptual level. You do not need to introduce sources that show how anthropologists have long been interested in social structure, or the diversity of cultures. They should address the levels of research question. This is provided that the reader is someone reasonably familiar with anthropology. If you are writing a proposal that will be read by a person in a completely different field, or outside of university research, then you may want to include such a statement, but only if you judge that your audience really needs it.

(You may discuss things in your literature review at the level of field questions, but these are usually best saved for the methodology section, which I will address in a future post.)

To say just one thing about the process of composing a literature review: The four functions of a literature review can be used as questions that you ask of the things you read, in light of your conceptual and research questions, and which allow you to rewrite your questions or modify or clarify the scope of your research project.

The functions, restated as broad questions are:

  1. What is the academic value of my project and the work of others in my area of research?
  2. Who are the scholars doing work most relevant to my project, and what do they say?
  3. What makes my research similar or different to their work?
  4. What key terms are most useful and effective for communicating my research and my ideas?

Ending your literature review

If your literature review fulfills these four functions, then it should allow you to arrive at a concluding sentiment in your literature review, which should be something like “Therefore, I will study ceremony Y in place X in order to understand its links with neoliberalization.”

In this way, a good literature review is like an essay within an essay. It shows, based on a careful and deliberate selection of relevant sources, how you position your research in relation to what others have done, and to explain the value of your work within that intellectual context. The rest of your proposal can then move on to the how of your research.

How to approach a research proposal: Writing questions

No matter where I have taught, one job that often challenges graduate students is the writing of a research proposal. When first encountered, it is a peculiar piece of academic writing that most undergraduate students may only have to attempt once or twice, if that. But they become increasingly important in graduate school, when writing thesis proposals and grant applications.

Below is a refined version of an explanation of how I approach writing questions for a research proposal, that I have shared in the past with Master’s students. Later installments will address other aspects of the proposal.


Questions are key to any type of research proposal. They make clear to the reader what your research is going to be about, and helps them to imagine the range of things you might do in your research. Formulating and refining your questions is also useful for helping you clarify your own thinking. You will draft many questions that are close but not quite right, and the process of writing better questions will help you figure out what you are actually doing.

Usually, students are asked “What is your research question?” and research questions are certainly important in a proposal. But in my view, the research question is just one of three types of questions that any effective research proposal must address.

The three types of questions are: conceptual questions, research questions, and field questions.

These question types are arranged in a logical hierarchy, with conceptual questions being the most abstract and field questions the most concrete.

Conceptual Questions

These are the “big” questions, posed at the most abstract level. Conceptual questions can include the biggest questions, like “What does it mean to be human?” or “What do people value in their lives and relationships?” but in research proposals, they usually connect to the broadest issues of academic concern in anthropology. They might be “What is capitalism?” or “How do new technologies affect human life?” or “How do people remember the past?” or “How does race shape peoples lives?”

Note how at this stage, these questions do not yet ask where or with whom your research will be done. Neither do they ask how the research will be conducted. Those matters are addressed by the other question types. What’s important in a conceptual question is to be able to express the potential significance of your contribution as a scholar who is doing this research, and not primarily of this specific research. Conceptual questions should suggest what you want to say about issues of general concern, which will certainly emerge out of specific research projects, but which rely more on what it is you want to be able to say about the world as a scholar, and what you want to see change, or argue is changeable.

Therefore, conceptual questions will often be about a big category of things in the world, like “capitalism” or “kinship,” that you want to critically understand. If you think capitalism is messed up and destroying the world, then your conceptual questions should probably be about capitalism and the environment. If you think what really matters to most people is religion, then your conceptual question should be about religion.

Note also that even though you may be doing anthropology, these conceptual questions may be shared with researchers in other disciplines. A sociologist, biologist, political scientist, or psychologist might also ask “What is race?” An anthropologist will answer this question differently, but it allows partial connections and dialog to happen interdisciplinarily.

For an anthropological reader, and for you as an anthropological proposal writer, conceptual questions will also indicate more or less what kind of anthropologist you are. For instance, if your conceptual question is “What does it mean to be “healthy?” a reader might place you as a medical anthropologist. But perhaps you’re actually interested in what people consider to be “good” or “virtuous,” above what they desire as “healthy,” in which case you might be an anthropologist of ethics. Or, maybe you are a medical anthropologist of ethics. In any case, by providing the reader with a sense of what your conceptual question is will allow those who might not know anything about your research sites a way to begin to understand how to position your work within their view of the discipline.

For most research proposals, you’ll only have one or two conceptual questions. You may not even explicitly pose them in your proposal, though a reader should be able to reasonably guess at what yours are. But knowing your conceptual questions will help you develop your other questions, and orient you within the discipline.

Research Questions

The abstract things that you ask about in your conceptual questions must have some concrete manifestations in the world. Anthropologists may talk about “kinship” but what really exists is people doing things with each other in more-or-less repetitive ways that anthropologists have decided can be usefully discussed using a concept called “kinship.” Research questions show the reader where specifically you think these concepts can be fruitfully investigated in the world. Thus, research questions are more concrete questions than conceptual questions: they get down to the specific who and what of your research. They are the key questions you will ask in your proposal and answer in your thesis.

So, if your conceptual question is “How do new technologies affect human life?” then your research question might be: “How is being an avatar on Platform X changing the way users navigate interpersonal relationships?” If your conceptual question is “What is capitalism?” then your research question might be “How is traditional textile production in Taiwan being affected by global trade?”

In anthropology, research questions are usually “How?” questions, even if they are not written in that way. This is because, in the majority of cases, your research will be about ethnographically establishing that some unstudied or understudied relationship exists between one thing and another thing. This is the case in most research. In the natural sciences, a study often tries to understand a causal relationship between one measurable thing—the independent variable—and another measurable thing—the dependent variable. (e.g. How is the motion of an electron affected by the presence of a strong magnetic field?) In anthropology, the relationships being explored are not usually causal, but analogical or otherwise co-occuring, but the point that the key aim of a study is to find the relationship between a thing and another thing that contributes to what that thing is holds, and your research question should reflect what you understand to be an important relationship between them.

Where the research questions are not explicitly posed as “How” questions, the relationship between one thing and another thing is usually present in more subtle ways. To take a classic example, Evans-Pritchard may have asked “What are magic and witchcraft among the Azande?” In this case, the dependent variables are “magic” and “witchcraft” and the independent variable is “among the Azande.” Unwieldy as it is, you could restate the question as “How are magic and witchcraft changed by being among the Azande?”

By formulating a research question in this way, you articulate a starting point for empirical study. For instance, the avatar question above shows clearly that you should start by trying to get information about interpersonal relationships from users of Platform X, and also that you should pay special attention to how people talk about or experience changes in those relationships associated with their use of the platform.

When you are writing a research proposal, you may only have a vague sense of what the relevant relationship is, but you hopefully have some idea. This can come from pilot research, personal experience, or a reading of the literature. In other words, you will have a hypothesis about what you will find in your research. Therefore, another function of a research question is to give you the opportunity to state this hypothesis. A hypothesis is a statement that answers the research question, and which can be tested for validity. For example, you may believe that users of Platform X become more isolated in their offline relationships as they invest more of themselves into their avatar. In your actual research, you can then go and test this hypothesis. Are users really becoming more isolated in real life? If so, is it because of their use of the platform?

Your research question must be posed in a way that a clear hypothesis can be given in response. One thing to be careful of here is that the research question should not pre-suppose too much of the hypothesis. You must be able to clearly separate the research question you are asking from the answer you think you will establish. A poor research question would be something like “How do people deal with the isolation in their offline relationships caused by using Platform X?” This question already implies that the major effect of using Platform X is isolation, and moreover that using Platform X causes that isolation. The question is posed in a way that already takes things you should probably find out for yourself as already known. Taken as a starting point for empirical study, it means that you might end up ignoring all the ways that people might become less isolated offline, or if they do appear to be becoming more isolated, all of the other things that could be contributing to that isolation that have little to do with using Platform X.

In practice, writing a clear research question is tricky, but it becomes easier with experience, and also by knowing how other people construct and answer their own research questions. More on this later, when I discuss literature reviews.

Field Questions

Field questions are the most concrete questions. If your research question is “How is being an avatar changing the way people navigate interpersonal relationships?” then good field questions might be: Who are the “people” you are interested in? What is an avatar, and how do people choose or create them? Who do they create or maintain relationships with, and how? Field questions are what you will end up asking directly to people in an interview, or trying to answer through participant observation, or asking on a survey, so that you can gather information that will help you answer the research questions.

Good field questions will help bring clarity, detail, and nuance to key terms in your research question. A key term in the earlier example “How is traditional textile production in Taiwan being affected by global trade?” is “production.” Field questions about “production” will help you be able to explain what it is in the context of traditional textiles in Taiwan: Who is doing the producing? What activities do they perform to produce? What do people say about their productive activities? What are the types of products they produce? Where and when does production happen? What other types of production are going on? And so on…

A Dynamic Hierarchy of Questions

As I’ve been discussing, conceptual questions are the most abstract, field questions are the most concrete, and research questions come in between. By “abstract,” I mean that they are about things that they are about things that are present generally, if not universally, in human life. This means that conceptual questions are relatively devoid of specific details. They are about the concept “the sacred” rather than about Christianity or Islam or Buddhism. By “concrete,” I mean that they are about specific details: this person, instead of “people”; this ceremony happening at this time and place, rather than “ritual.”

Therefore, you must be able to arrange conceptual questions, research questions, and field questions in a hierarchy from abstract to concrete. In this hierarchy of questions, you should be able to see that at each level, questions are about different things, i.e. “ritual” rather than “a baptism.” It should be possible to see the research questions as a specific manifestation of a general conceptual question, and each of the field questions as manifestations of the research questions.

You should also be able to see how the key terms in those questions are related to each other in a hierarchy of abstract to concrete. So if a conceptual question is about “the sacred” then there should probably be research questions about “Christianity” or “Buddhism,” and then field questions about “baptism” or “enlightenment” or whatever else. (Exactly what terms go at what level in the hierarchy will depend completely on how you design your project.)

There is also a hierarchy in the number of possible questions that can be posed at each level. For every conceptual question, there are hundreds of research questions that could be asked. Each research question should lead to hundreds of field questions. In any single research proposal, you will probably only have one conceptual question, maybe one or two research questions, and many, many field questions. Conversely, it should be possible to see how answering enough of the field questions can lead to answering the research questions, thereby helping to answer, at least partially, the conceptual questions.

In the actual practice of research, the questions at each level while cause you to rethink and revise questions at other levels. To give a trivial example, you may find that users of Platform X do not in fact use avatars at all, but are taking care of virtual pets. In response, you may decide to change your research question so that it is no longer about avatars but about virtual pets, or maybe you will change your question to be about a different platform. In either case, answers to your field questions will have significantly changed your research questions. You will then adjust your field questions to suit the new research questions. This is normal, and is a feature of ongoing ethnographic research. You discover things are not quite what you thought, and you adjust.

Notice, however, that the conceptual question (“How do new technologies affect human life?”) does not change. In some cases, the conceptual question may change, but this means that things were really not what you thought. Or, it might mean that you want to do a different kind of project as a different kind of anthropologist. This happens too, but probably less frequently.

The point is that, when you’re actually doing research, the hierarchy of questions will turn out not to be as rigidly top-down as it might appear in the research proposal. Nevertheless, the research proposal should usually be presented in a way that a reader can follow how certain conceptual questions imply the research questions which imply field questions; and be able to see how answering the field questions will answer the research questions, and then the conceptual questions. This is often what a reader of a proposal means when they say “logical organization” or something similar about a research proposal

The rest of the proposal

In terms of research design, having clarity about your questions and the relationships between them is crucial for building up the justification for your research project. Depending on the type of proposal that you are writing, you may spend the first one to three pages introducing and explaining your questions. If you’re successful in this, then the literature review and methodology sections, which usually follow, should be on firm logical footing. (I plan to address these other sections in other posts.)