Friday, March 14, 2014

Applied vs. Academic Ethnomusicology: A Persistent Error

    Why do people continue to believe, mistakenly and with harmful consequences, that applied ethnomusicology stands in oppostion to academic ethnomusicology? I wrote about this in passing, in a 2011 blog entry. Here, as I prepare my part of the Introduction to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, which I'm co-editing with Svanibor Pettan, I return to explain the reasons. The mistake arises out of a confusion of what applied ethnomusicology is, with where the person doing it is employed. Think of a grid with two fields and two categories. The fields are places of employment: either (1) inside colleges and universities, or (2) outside them. The categories: (1) ethnomusicological reseach and scholarship, and (2) ethnomusicological research and scholarship put to practical use--i.e., applied ethnomusicology. None of these is mutually exclusive. Ethnomusicologists do scholarly research whether employed in the academic world or not. Ethnomusicologists do applied work whether employed inside the academy or outside of it. In fact, considered as a worldwide phenomenon, more academics than non-academics are engaged in applied ethnomusicology.  
    One recent example of the persistence of this false dichotomy: At the 2013 conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), a meeting of “program heads” was convened for the first time, bringing together representative directors of university doctoral programs, faculty from colleges offering only undergraduate degrees, and heads of institutions doing applied ethnomusicology in the public interest, such as Smithsonian Folkways Records, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. For those who may not be aware of their work in this area, Smithsonian Folkways promotes the music of traditional musicians in minority groups and cultures, while the Rock and Roll museum has a large educational music outreach program. The convener of this event asked me (as a co-chair of the Applied Ethnomusicology Section of SEM) to suggest names of people who would represent “public sector ethnomusicology”—that is, ethnomusicology practiced by those employed by taxpayer dollars in government-funded institutions at the federal and state level. Not only did such a charge overlook the NGOs doing applied ethnomusicology, but it was based on the same mistaken bifurcation of academic vs. applied, while locating applied ethnomusicology as something done outside of the academic world, in the public sector. And at the program heads meeting, I noted that most of the "heads" unthinkingly adopted the same bifurcated view.
    As an aside, the term “public sector ethnomusicology” hearkens back to the 1980s when public folklore was called “public sector folklore.” This was a misnomer then, as it is now; and it arose out of the same mistaken dichotomy between academic and public in the folklore world, which dichotomy was valiantly opposed by the then-president of the American Folklore Society (AFS), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in her 1988 address to the AFS, later published in the Society’s Journal. Must ethnomusicology repeat folklore’s agonies 25 years later?
    Why, then, does this division persist in the minds of ethnomusicologists? I don't think it's only a matter of confusion, and that once the facts are on the table, the error will disappear. The reasons for it are deeper, and the explanation is cultural--in the cultures of our own institutions. Unless those cultures change, the division will persist. One way to pursue it is to ask why so many ethnomusicologists employed outside the academic world are content to equate applied with non-academic. In the early 2000s, on the initiative of its Applied Ethnomusicology Section, SEM regularly sponsored panels on alternative careers where practitioners employed outside academia spoke of how they did applied ethnomusicology in their work. Among these were public folklorists specializing in music. The Section also invited people from the corporate and government worlds to speak to SEM. They included, for example, field recordists who had produced a significant body of world music recordings, such as David Lewiston with the old Nonesuch Explorer series. I think it’s a stretch to call what he did applied ethnomusicology, but it surely was a different kind of career from university teaching and research, and it did involve making field recordings of the kinds of music that academic ethnomusicologists recorded and studied. The difference was that these were aimed at the general public. Ethnomusicologists employed outside academia welcomed these presentations not only because they provided models but also as opportunities to learn how to navigate outside the academy in the corporate and government worlds. They also were attractive to younger ethnomusicologists, including graduate students, concerned about whether they would ever become tenured academics. In addition, some ethnomusicologists employed outside the academy have mixed feelings about the academic world, viewing it as privileged and elitist, thinking it ought to be more involved in the world outside the ivory tower, and regarding it as mired in useless theorizing and arcane scholarship which has little or no practical use. Ethnomusicology graduate students stronger in music performance than in musical and cultural theory may become resentful when they are unable to compete with talented scholars. Applied ethnomusicology outside of the academic world then becomes a more attractive alternative. In short, ethnomusicologists outside the academic world persist in equating applied ethnomusicology with non-academic employment because they look at their cohort and find that to be true about themselves. They overlook the fact that academics also do applied ethnomusicology.
    Another way to ask why the false dichotomy between applied and academic persists is to shift the question to the academy and ask why many US professors do not place a high value on applied work. Of course some academics, myself included, do place a high value on it; but frankly within the academy we are a minority, particularly in the US. Besides, we do research and publish scholarship as well. Here, the problem seems to be institutional, tied to the nature of the research university and the ways academic disciplines operate in them. Research and scholarship are more prestigious and result in more rewards than applied work, or teaching for that matter. To get tenure and remain in the university world today, young professors, no matter how good in the classroom, need to earn a strong reputation by publishing their research. The ways academic institutions must reproduce themselves by training graduate students in their own image is another reason. The need for a relatively young field such as ethnomusicology to establish its credentials among the academic disciplines, and to institutionalize itself within the structure of colleges and universities, is a third reason. Finally, whereas outside the US professors often are involved in politics and the public sphere, inside the US there is no such tradition, despite the cries from the conservative right that professors lean left. Taken together, these cultural aspects of US academic institutions make applied ethnomusicology difficult to practice while employed in them, particularly prior to tenure. I will have more to say about them in the next blog entry.

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