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Home » Timothy Taylor – The absence of culture in the study of music, or, culture as a cultural system

Timothy Taylor – The absence of culture in the study of music, or, culture as a cultural system

Timothy Taylor

Few concepts are bandied about with the regularity of “culture,” yet few are as misunderstood or ignored. While plenty has been written about the overuse of the term culture or its limitations (see, e.g., Abu-Lughod 1991, Gupta and Ferguson 1992, and Troulliot 1991), I continue to find it a useful concept. My concern here is the absence, or feeble presence of it, in studies of music, including those by many ethnomusicologists, who purport to make the study of music and, or in, culture their main business.

In the American context, at least, this problem is exacerbated by centuries-old ideologies of individualism (see de Crèvecœur 1981 and de Tocqueville 2003), ideologies that are extremely difficult to overcome. Our individual-centric culture has facilitated the understanding of the world as a congeries of cultures, but stops short of using the concept to understand ourselves, except as a means of differentiating ourselves from other (usually ethnicized or racialized) groups. In the American context, at least, “culture” has come not to refer to the anthropological concept, but, simply, difference: my culture is different than yours. “Culture” in this sense is thus a concept that merely replaces older ideas of race, ethnicity, or blood in American parlance. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in reception and studies of music, in which individual creators are seen as just that: Music emanates directly from someone’s head. Concepts of genius and talent are taken as axiomatic, not as ideologies with specific histories. Even some ethnomusicologists—a label that, with Wim van der Meer (2005), I do not like, for the same reasons—who conduct significant ethnographic research often minimize what their ethnography tells them except for what they deem to be relevant about music. Musicians who lead complex lives (as does everyone) are reduced to individuals who emit music, not people with various amounts of different forms of capital situated as subjects in different class, gender, generational, racialized, and ethnicized positions.

This is in part a problem of any field that studies a particular aspect of a culture rather than “culture” (as in anthropology), “society” (as in sociology) or “history” (as in history). The problem of focusing on a single practice, no matter how broad and various, can lead to a focus on its practitioners as nothing other than practitioners; culture is secondary, if it comes in at all. There is thus a tendency to study the people who make culture, not how they are made by culture. I am not saying that some ethnomusicologists don’t know what culture is. What I am asserting is that Culture all too often falls by the wayside in studies of music. Study of music in Culture becomes just the study of music. Ethnography of musicians who are people in a culture too often becomes just biography of musicians.

Let’s revisit the culture concept as promulgated by its most celebrated and influential proponent of the last half-century, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. I am sure it is not necessary to rehearse Geertz on the culture concept—we all know what it is. But I would like to go back, briefly, to his classic article “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” (Geertz 1973). It seems to me that some who don’t read his article carefully end up believing that Geertz is simply advocating for copious description, as if that somehow is an end in itself. But for Geertz, thick description involves the search for what is meaningful for various social actors, which makes the analysis of culture the sorting out of “the structures of signification” (Geertz 1973: 9). “Ethnography,” he writes, “is thick description” (Geertz 1973: 910), and its proper object of analysis is “the informal logic of everyday life” (Geertz 1973: 17). Geertz then writes,

If anthropological interpretation is constructing a reading of what happens, then to divorce it from what happens—from what, in this time or that place, specific people say, what they do, what is done to them, from the whole vast business of the world—is to divorce it from its applications and render it vacant (Geertz 1973: 18).

Yet how often have we seen studies of music that serve up this very sort of vacancy?

Geertz also admonishes, “Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they study in villages” (Geertz 1973: 22; ellipsis and italics in original). That is, the object of analysis is not something concrete, tangible—the goal is the interpretation of the “flow of social discourse” (Geertz 1973: 20).

There are, unfortunately, many sorts of inquiries that avoid the sort of analysis advocated by Geertz. Geertz provides a list of what he calls “escapes,” avenues of study that sound suspiciously like much of it is done by those in music studies ostensibly studying culture: Geertz warns of “turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it to traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it.” But, I would insist with Geertz, these are escapes (Geertz 1973: 29)—they are not enterprises in search of what is meaningful to particular social actors in particular places and times.

As much as it is widely understand that Geertz’s focus was on meaning, signification, it isn’t always as well understood by some music scholars just what this means for the study of culture. First, while Geertz could be, in Abu-Lughod’s thinking, “culturalist,” sometimes overlooking the particularity of individuals he studied (Abu-Lughod 1991), the centrality of meaning in his thinking presupposes subjects for whom objects, relationships, practices, events, are meaningful. It is nonetheless true that he did not always focus on individual subjects or questions of agency (see Ortner 1996 and Ortner 2006), but that doesn’t mean that his concept of culture was incorrect or deficient.

It must also be remembered that ethnography is a radically different methodology than the conducting of surveys or other sorts of sociological inquiry, historical inquiry, or philosophical inquiry. The former two are closer to what one could call scientific studies in which the main goal is to attempt to uncover objective social structures and practices (sociology) or the objective historical record, characterizations I do not mean to be negative in any way for these are valuable endeavors. Ethnography, however, is, as I say, radically different, for it is less concerned with what is true or objective than what people believe to be true and real—what matters to them, and how this mattering, these beliefs, shape thought and practice.

Yet it seems to me that some corners of ethnomusicology frequently continue to suffer from the more scientific and less qualitative modes of inquiry by asking questions that are less ethnographic, less about thick description, less about meaning, and more about imposing scientific—including quantitative—questions on what people do and why they do it. Or some get bogged down in the sort of questions that could best be described as ontological, e.g., What is authentic? What is this or that genre? But such questions can’t ever be answered, they can only be addressed ethnographically: What is said and done in the name of authenticity? What is said and done in the name of this or that genre? There have also been some more recent blows to the culture concept, some more overt than others. The popularity of “practice theory” in some of the music fields has yielded much productive research. Some of the most influential practice theorists, however, are sociologists (Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens), whose object of study is not culture but society. How useful is a practice theory of society if one is interested in culture? Think back to Bourdieu’s classic Distinction (Bourdieu 1984). What does one learn about French culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s (when Bourdieu’s survey data was collected)? Do we learn anything about real people, which one would in an ethnography (even if their names are changed)? It is thus necessary, I would argue, not only to be wary of “applications” of practice theory that render culture vacant, and sometimes to culturalize practice theory to some degree, as Sherry B. Ortner (Ortner 1996 and 2006) and William Sewell (Sewell 2005) have attempted in some of their work.

Another blow against the culture concept, at least in ethnomusicology, is Tim Rice’s influential promotion of the “subject-centered musical ethnography,” (Rice 2003), which begins with rehearsing the various problematizations of the culture concept in anthropology and elsewhere. Rice also visits various theorizations of globalization, which foreground the movement of peoples around the world, to advocate our focus on individuals rather than culture (Rice 2003: 152). He then surveys some ideas about the nature of the individual, drawing from Giddens the idea of self-reflexivity (Giddens 1990) to justify greater ethnomusicological attention to the music-making self and the prevalence of self-narration in the late modern world. Giddens’s point about self-reflexivity, however, was a comment on the propensity of societies in the modern world to be reflexive about themselves, not about individuals’ reflexivity. Rice is careful in his attempts not simply to abandon the anthropological concept of culture, and does not say that moving the focus from culture to the individual will answer all questions.

Nonetheless, the result has all too frequently been simply a re-valorization of the musician as individual creator.

What I am saying is that Rice’s turn away from culture to focus on individuals was in effect a wrong turn. We should, of course, attend to individuals; it would be difficult not to. But we need always to keep in mind that the relationship between individuals and culture is extremely complex. Culture does not “determine” individuals’ thoughts and actions, and culture is not simply a product of individuals’ thoughts and actions. They coexist in a complex dynamic, which, I believe, is best understood employing the body of work known as “practice theory” (Bourdieu 1990, Giddens 1979, Ortner 1996 and 2006, Sahlins 1981, Sewell 2005), properly culturalized. Ortner’s updated definition of culture imports practice theory thinking: culture consists of “(politically inflected) schemas through which people see and act upon the world and the (politically inflected) subjectivities through which people feel—emotionally, viscerally, sometimes violently—about themselves and the world” (Ortner 2006: 18).

A weak or absent culture concept has also, I believe, led to endless formulations of “music and —” (e.g., music and difference, music and identity, musical identity). Linkage between music and something else is a kind of lateral move, instead of a more “downward” move that connects music to culture, identity (for example) to culture, and all three together. The problem of music and identity is particularly salient for it exploded on the ethno/musicological scene a couple of decades ago, but, as Tim Rice (2007) has shown, was never interrogated or treated reflexively (Rice 2007). Identity was treated as natural, a given in the ethnomusicological literature he examined. Yet identity as a self-conception—and self-construction—is not natural, it is, of course, cultural, social, and historical.

For me, what has been most useful is the conceptualization of music (any music) as something that registers what is going on in its culture. In my study of music in advertising in the US, for example, I amassed a database of advertising jingles, which I categorized by genre. I noticed that after World War II, there was an increase in the number of marches being used, which I interpreted as a shift to a more exhortative mode of selling that was thought to be necessary during the Cold War, when the US saw itself, and represented itself to itself, as a land of plenty, in stark contrast to the Soviet Union (Taylor 2012). Analyzing any particular march would seem to be unnecessary for making that point. Any sort of cultural analysis of music needs to be conducted with the utmost reflexivity so as not to regress to pointless positivism, in which culture is rendered vacant. We must be vigilant. What is our music analysis for? Is it necessary to transcribe this or that musical performance?  What questions about culture does music or performance analysis help us address? If we get bogged down in what we believe to be knowable through quantifying and scientizing, we may be rich in facts and figures but we will certainly be poor in our understanding of culture and what individual social actors say and do, and why they believe themselves to be saying and doing what they are saying and doing.


Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. “Writing against Culture.” In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Edited by Richard G. Fox. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

—. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

de Crèvecœur, J. Hector St. John. 1981. Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. Edited by Albert E. Stone. New York: Penguin.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic.

Giddens, Anthony. 1979. Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

—. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (February): 7-23.

Marx, Karl. 1963. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International. Ortner, Sherry B. 1996. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon.

—. 2006. Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rice, Timothy. 2003. “Time, Place, and Metaphor in Musical Experience and Ethnography.” Ethnomusicology 47 (spring-summer): 151-79.

—. 2007. “Reflections on Music and Identity.” Musicology 7: 17-38.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1981. Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sewell, William H. 2005. Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Timothy D. 2012. The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

. n.d. Commercializing Culture: Capitalism, Music, and Social Theory after Adorno. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. 2003. Democracy in America. Translated by Gerald Bevan. Edited by Isaac Kramnick. New York: Penguin.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1991. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Edited by Richard G. Fox. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

van der Meer, Wim. 2005. “Visions of Hindustani Music.” World of Music 47: 105-118.

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