At SEM Austin 2015

I’m sure other disciplines feel the same, but for me, there’s nothing quite like an SEM conference. I saw so many wonderful, thought-provoking papers, got to meet and talk with so many new people, and bought so many half-priced books the last day, that I came home thoroughly inspired. For this week’s blog post, I thought I would share my reactions to my favorite paper presentation.

Thursday really set the tone for the conference. I heard a lot of amazing papers over the three days I was in Austin (the only flight I could get home left at 6am Sunday morning, so I sadly missed Alice Roger’s presentation. SEM does archive some of the video streams however, so you can catch some papers you may have missed!). But I believe that Benjamin Teitelbaum’s paper “Ethical No More: Collaboration and Reciprocity in the New Fieldwork” was my favorite.

I went to his panel, which was titled rather innocuously Adventures in Fieldwork: Vulnerability and Advocacy, without any real expectations. I tend to not read abstracts before the conference as I enjoy being surprised. Ben was the first presenter, and he started his talk by relating an anecdote that had been given by a professor and then picked up by Ben and his cohorts when they were graduate students. I can’t remember the wording exactly, but it was something about the propensity of ethnomusicologists to wear clothing from the people and areas they study and, in some cases, to marry people from there as well. Ben expanded this into some interesting implications for the field, namely the assumption that, to be a good and effective ethnomusicologist, one must align and collaborate with their interlocutors and that the emphasis today is on experiencing rather than collecting. This made sense to me. After all, ethnos often find themselves in positions of advocacy and support, particularly for subaltern groups. And we have turned away from the “salvage ethnographies” of the past, in which the whole point seemed to be collection and archiving.

This led to Ben’s revelation of another assumption: that ethnomusicologists study the powerless. Issues of power relations have been very important to ethnos for a long time because the assumption (there’s that word again) is that the educational, monetary, and political freedoms that ethnos exhibit and represent to their interlocutors can (and does) place them in a position of power. This, too, made sense to me. Hadn’t much of my ethnomusicological training and experience involved negotiating my own perceptions and positions of power? Then Ben dropped the bombshell. It turns out that Ben studies the music of radical right-wing nationalists, including neo-nazis.

I’m sure this wasn’t news to people who knew Ben’s work (or, you know, anyone who had read his abstract), but for me, it so beautifully knocked down every assumption that I had taken as truth. Ben posed the question: “Do we have to love the people we study?” I’d always taken that for granted. He asked if we can empathize without agreeing. I’d never thought of that before! His paper did what I think ethnos should always be doing: it forced me to examine my own assumptions and beliefs about our field, about what and who we are, and how we do what we do. This presentation showed how we can see anyone as an individual, rather than as an ideology. He wrapped up by saying that if ethnos will not or cannot study the music of people they have fundamental differences of opinion with, then we’ll all have to agree that we don’t actually study the music of the whole world.

The other papers on that panel were really great, but it was Ben’s ideas that followed me throughout the conference. And I’m still thinking about them. We’d really like to keep these kinds of dialogs going and to engage with ideas presented at SEM after the conference is over. So please leave a comment or contact us at to tell us about a paper or discussion that really moved you.



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