An Ethno’s Existential Crisis

What am I doing with my life? I think this might be the next phase in the “I-just-finished-comps,-what-do-I-do-now” process. I was recently speaking with my husband about an entrepreneurial educator who travels all over the world making educational games and apps for kids. In one particular area of India, the people asked him to leave. They didn’t want their children to receive a Western education because that encouraged the kids to leave the area. The man said, “Ok, what do you need? What do you want your kids to learn?” They replied, “Farming.” The guy said, “If I teach them farming, will you let me stay?” They agreed, so he developed a farming game app for the children. This story may be somewhat anecdotal but it’s gotten me thinking: what good can I do with a PhD in ethnomusicology? As ethnomusicologists, we’re trained to go into an area and say, “Please tell me about yourself.” We’re not trained, at least not overtly, to go into an area and say, “Please tell me what you need.”

Some may argue that there are other disciplines and careers that do this very thing and, while it’s applicable to ethnomusicology, it’s not what ethnomusicologists do. I started wondering then: should it be? Ethnomusicologists have been arguing, pretty much since the inception of the discipline, over what ethno is and what ethnos do. Is it wrong to think that our work can be of benefit to more than just academia or knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

So I started thinking about Applied Ethnomusicology. This seems to be the area for people who are interested in how ethnomusicologists can be involved in social justice and advocacy. However, I quickly realized I know next to nothing about Applied Ethnomusicology. So I took to the internet (as many people do) for answers. SEM ( and ICTM ( both have pages dedicated to Applied Ethnomusicology that feature definitions and bibliographies.

Additionally, I found a really inspiring lecture given by Dr. Anthony Seeger at UCLA in 2012. Dr. Seeger has become one of the many voices and exemplars, not only of applied ethno, but also of opportunities for ethnomusicologists outside of academia. One thing that struck me was Dr. Seeger’s focus on an “ethnomusicological point of view.” He emphasized the fact that our training in research, observation, analysis, and skills in talking with people and really listening to what they say can be incredibly valuable when it comes to helping people. He said that we don’t have to separate our work in academia from our actions in the world. He also suggested that we make our careers coherent to our own set of values. I think this might be one reason why ethnomusicologists are such rugged individualists, why we all can’t seem to agree on anything, but it might also be one of our greatest strengths. If we’re constantly coming into contact with people who question our values and who don’t mind us questioning theirs, and if we are strong enough to recognize when our value system doesn’t work and needs to be changed, we as individuals and as a discipline will emerge that much stronger and more dedicated.

Asking people what they need might not be part of an ethnomusicologist’s job description, but according to Dr. Seeger, we are qualified to both ask the question and do something about the answer.

– Heather


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