SEM Student News: Who Cares About Ethnomusicology?

SEM Student News, Student Voices

Who Cares About Ethnomusicology

By Kevin Sliwoski (University of California, Riverside)

In this, my first “Student Voices” column, I offer my thoughts on how SEM might extend its political influence. This column is inherently a forum for multiple viewpoints; I begin here with my own in hope that our readers will participate in this exchange of ideas around ethnomusicology as a field, a “brand,” and a positionality. My research this past year on the sonic and political consequences of the US Military overseas has led me to settings and conversations far outside of ethnomusicology, some of which made me intimately aware of various challenges within our field and its outward appearance. I want to begin a conversation to which junior and senior Society for Ethnomusicology members may contribute. I would like for this space to continue as an outlet for students to voice their thoughts and concerns and to challenge current practices and approaches with new ideas. As such, I warmly invite ethnomusicology students to participate in our Student Union and all readers to respond to our discussions in this publication via email, Facebook, and the SU Blog. We welcome your perspectives.


Who Cares About Ethnomusicology?

How many times have you been met with awkward pauses, confusion, or skepticism when you tell someone—usually a family member—that you study “ethnomusicology”? How many times have you had to qualify or over-explain what an “ethnomusicologist” does? You might have experienced this exchange more than once. It does not help that ethnomusicology is a rather cumbersome, difficult-to-explain word (for example, see Nettl [1983] 2005). As representatives of the discipline, our soft underbelly is often our field’s lack of public legibility and institutional recognition. This barrier can frustrate our efforts to engage with individuals, communities, and institutions outside of our own. It can also make advocacy more difficult. Part of the problem is the reception of music studies by other disciplines. Nettl reminds us that, “in Western academic culture, musicians have made it known that others can’t really understand and talk about music, while people in other fields stay away” (Nettl 2010, 98). These arbitrary borders have isolated the study of music as an ultra-specialized field and music cultures as off limits to non-specialists, often leaving ethnomusicologists at a disadvantage. This divide has begun to thaw out with the injection of sound studies into the academy.

For many years, SEM as a collective has been moving toward deliberate and calculated public engagement beyond individual research, publications, and advocacy efforts. Our called for ethnomusicologists to “disseminate our research, teaching, and activism in ways that are more public and more political.” Certainly our efforts should be public, political, and present. However, for whom “has [it] become clear that our work is more important now than ever”? If one of the problems of our discipline is being known, then our position statements and research remain internal and, worse, peripheral within the academy and to the public. I am glad that SEM issues position statements that condemn actions, individuals, and organizations that oppose the ethical standards we hold ourselves to as researchers and humanists—but who, outside of SEM, reads them?

As ethnomusicologists, how can we expect to be engaged in the political—to be advocates—when those around us are not even sure what we do? How effective are our political positions if they are not widely read or disseminated? If our first conversation point is to define our profession, that is time spent explaining or defining a problem rather than time spent solving one. To take up the call of applied or engaged or political ethnomusicology requires us to have influence and recognition beyond our own ranks and beyond the borders of the academy.

I think SEM’s proposed five-year strategic plan addresses the correct issues, especially the call to “Promote Ethnomusicology” and “Expand Public, Applied, and Advocacy Initiatives” (Cowdery 2018, 5). But how do we execute these suggestions? Before I offer my own ideas, I want to address one major issue that I think continues to hold back SEM’s efforts to be a relevant political force.


On Naming and Branding

Although labels and definitions have been much debated in ethnomusicology (see Nettl [1983] 2005 and 2010; Rice 2014; Bigenho 2009), it warrants a place here. We are still burdened by the fact that, during the development of our discipline, we were not entirely successful in representing and defining our field to the public. And now, the public and many other academics remain unclear on what ethnomusicology is, what we do, and why it matters. As of April 8, 2018, our society’s definition of ethnomusicology on our website is somewhat opaque, yet it is our main point of contact with a public audience. Consider the opening phrase of our definition:

“Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is but why it is: what music means to its practitioners and audiences, and how those meanings are conveyed.”

This definition does not clarify ethnomusicology, or the work ethnomusicologists do, to the general public. Additionally, why is this fundamental information tucked away, three clicks from SEM’s homepage?

However, as of April 8, 2018, our profile and definition are better represented with the American Council of Learned Sciences (ACLS):

“to promote the research, study, and performance of music in all historical periods and cultural contexts.”

It’s still not perfect, but it is clear and concise, and ACLS’s user-friendly website makes this definition more accessible.

Now, compare SEM’s definition of ethnomusicology to the American Anthropological Association’s answer to “What is Anthropology?”:

“Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present.”

This definition is short, evocative and idealistic. It is easily found as soon as you click on AAA’s main webpage. It forms an important part of AAA’s brand, which is carefully and professionally rendered online. AAA has an attractively-designed website that is easy to click through. It has big text, bold headlines, and bright photos. It invites visitors in. The website shows how seriously AAA takes the business of anthropology and demonstrates the discipline’s maturity and the value it holds for its mission and members. In his 2004 SEM Newsletter column on political advocacy, then-SEM president Timothy Rice found AAA’s website to be “rich with ideas you might want to consider” (3). AAA has developed and invested in a brand—SEM should consider doing the same. Ethnomusicology does not have a unified, clear, and accessible definition of our discipline, and it does not have a dynamic brand. We, as a professional organization, need to define ourselves and debate what our public profile is going to look like. And, if engaging with the public and taking political positions is important to us, how much are we willing to spend to rehabilitate our public image so that our research is more known? With recognition, we might better advocate for those people and communities we care about.

Lobbying and Public Relations

I suggest that the Society for Ethnomusicology should consider hiring a professional public relations firm or a professional lobbying firm (or both) to better represent our society and our goals publicly to the world and to our elected officials. Instead of Executive Director Stephen Stuempfle breathlessly “pounding the pavement” of Capitol Hill (Barz 2018, 3), we might have professional advocates coolly working on our behalf full time who can devote their energies to advocating for ethnomusicology and for the humanities. I would guess that many of us would like to be more public and engaged as advocates but cannot because professional and institutional responsibilities (and sometimes distance) preclude us from such activities. Why not hire someone to cover the ground we cannot at the congressional level?

I recognize that outsourcing our problems and advocacy efforts may not satisfy any personal desires to be public advocates. And I am not suggesting that lobbying become a substitute; rather, it would be a supplement to other endeavors. It is a way to be professionally connected to politics without the considerable investment of time, travel, and money that may be out of reach for many practicing ethnomusicologists. In consideration of the balance needed between professional ethics and lobbying, we should be cautious and deliberate if we choose to lobby. Thanks to David Price (2016), we know some of the risks that political and governmental collaboration can pose to our ethical responsibilities as researchers. We do not want our discipline to be “quietly shaped” (xi) by government influence or follow the example of past academics who “ignored the political contexts in which the projects were embedded” (123), in exchange for research funding or access to communities provided through programs such as USAID in the 1960s.

However, reflexively examining our politics, ethics, and brand might result in works or actions that elevate our discipline and connect us to new people. The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual (2009) organized by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists was a visible and public ideological challenge from an academic society against the US Military’s Iraq War counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine—the “winning hearts and minds” approach to combat, which emphasized culture and communication rather than bombs and bullets. It also served to condemn social scientists who embedded with US forces through the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) program (see United States 2007; McFate and Laurence 2016; Gonzalez 2015). The meta-commentary on HTS is complicated, but, in this effort, these anthropologists responded. They advocated for Iraqis, for ethical research practices, and for accountability they felt had been sacrificed. SEM’s 2007 Position Statement on Torture functioned in a similar fashion but on a much smaller scale. I am not sure what the public relevancy of that position statement has been, besides Suzanne Cusick’s (2006; 2008) exceptional series of articles, to which the statement directly refers. Could we—should we—have done more then? How can we do more now?

I note several obstacles we need to address when it comes to lobbying: funding, representation and management, ethics, and legality. In regard to funding for outreach and lobbying efforts, SEM could consider raising membership dues, which would be a simple, albeit possibly unpopular, solution. Likewise, for representation and management, SEM could create a service position (e.g., “Political Outreach Representative”) within the Ethics Committee to facilitate and communicate with our hired representatives. Ideally, this would include both student and professional input. Naturally, the Ethics Committee and board would need to thoroughly review such a project and verify whether a lobbying effort fundamentally violates the society’s mission. If the SEM board and/or society members could agree on a lobbying or PR campaign, there would no doubt be a series of changes and adjustments to the bylaws of SEM. There are limits to the amount of lobbying a nonprofit organization can engage in, so as not to jeopardize the organization’s tax-exempt status. While the Internal Revenue Service, as of May 21, 2018, outlines that “some lobbying” is acceptable, the IRS also explains that “organizations may . . . involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying,” and use the examples of educational activities and the distribution of educational materials as an avenue of involvement without lobbying. While navigating the legal territory of lobbying might prove too much, I believe that influencing public policy through education and our expertise is within our reach and might satisfy efforts to expand political advocacy and activism within SEM.

Service Ethnomusicology

I think that being an advocate—a successful advocate—means setting aside a degree of self-reflexivity. Ethnomusicologists like to be present in their written work, and this is part of our training. Although self-reflexivity and autoethnography may be held up as important tools for the ethnomusicologist, it can be a shaky line between reflection and indulgence. Advocating is about public support for a cause, group, or individual. Advocating is not concerned with the wants and needs of the advocate—although, of course, there can be significant overlap. To be successful advocates today might require us to downplay the ego of self-reflexivity in our work and direct that energy inward to our discipline. This might then allow our communities to become the sole focus of our efforts.

In our pursuit to be engaged, applied, advocate, or public ethnomusicologists, the term that might best represent all such efforts is “service ethnomusicology.” We are in service to our consultants, our discipline, our society, and what SEM is now gesturing to: society and politics. I think the shift to a service ethnomusicology mindset or training might further point us in a more productive direction.


Barz, Gregory. 2018. “Sounding Advocacy in Ethnomusicology.” SEM Newsletter 52 (2): 3–4.

Bigenho, Michelle. 2009. “Why I’m Not an Ethnomusicologist: A View from Anthropology.” In The New (Ethno)musicologies, edited by Henry Stobart, 28–39. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Cowdery, James, ed. 2018. “SEM 2017–2022 Strategic Plan.” SEM Newsletter 52 (2): 5–6.

Cusick, Suzanne. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” TRANS-Revista Transcultural de Musica 10.

———. 2008. “‘You Are in a Place That Is Out of the World . . .’: Music in the Detention Camps of the ‘Global War on Terror.’” Journal of the Society for American Music 2 (1): 1–26.

Gonzalez, Roberto J. 2015. “The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System.” Counterpunch, June 29, 2015.

McFate, Montgomery, and Janice H. Laurence, eds. 2016. Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nettl, Bruno. (1983) 2005. “The Harmless Drudge: Defining Ethnomusicology.” In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts, 3–15. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

———. 2010. Nettl’s Elephant: On the History of Ethnomusicology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Network of Concerned Anthropologists. 2009. The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Price, David. 2016. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rice, Timothy. 2004. “SEM and Political Advocacy.” SEM Newsletter 38 (2): 1, 3–4.

———. 2014. Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

United States. 2007. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3–24: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication no. 3–33.5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.