Ethnomusicological Theory

By Rice, Timothy | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethnomusicological Theory


Rice, Timothy, Yearbook for Traditional Music


"Ethnomusicological theory," despite its name and despite the fact that it in some ways permeates our field, has yet to take firm root in our disciplinary imagination.1 Indeed, the phrase appears to be used rarely, in comparison to references to an unmodified "theory" in or for ethnomusicology. Minimally, ethnomusicology today engages with three types of theory: social theory, music theory, and discipline-specific ethnomusicological theory. Unmodified references to theory have tended to obfuscate the nature of ethnomusicological theory and have left ethnomusicologists a bit unsure, and perhaps even insecure, about the relevance and place of theory, however understood, in their work.

Three recent publications by Mervyn McLean, Ruth Stone, and me illustrate the problem I have in mind. McLean (2006), in his book Pioneers of Ethnomusicology, laments that "American ethnomusicology is now awash with theory" (p. 337) "derived mostly from outside disciplines" (p. 259), when, in his view, more solid, straightforward description is what is really needed.2 On the contrary, my recent review of the literature in the journal Ethnomusicology on the theme of music and identity revealed virtually no references to theory from outside the discipline or indeed much in the way of intradisciplinary theorizing (Rice 2007). Viewed from this limited angle, ethnomusicology could hardly be said to be awash in theory. This small survey notwithstanding, it is probably fair to say that American ethnomusicologists today typically cite a wide range of theory from a variety of disciplines.

Against McLean's implication that treading water in theory from other disciplines distracts us from more important tasks. Stone (2008:225), in her book-length survey Theory for Ethnomusicology, argues that "theory is the essential complement to the rich ethnographic detail of ethnographic description." However, she points out that, though "many ethnomusicologists espouse the centrality of theory" to the field, "theoretical discussions are ... typically brief and cursory in most ethnomusicological accounts" (p. ix). If theory is central to the field, why is it only treated briefly? This is not a logical problem, but an accurate characterization of the discipline's treatment of theory. Without engaging in an extended critique of individual works, I think it is fair to say that ethnomusicologists often reference theory from outside the discipline for the authority and interdisciplinarity it appears to give to their work, but it is rarely the object of sustained argumentation.3 As Stone (2008:ix) puts it, "A very few ethnomusicologists engage in detailed theoretical discussion ... These ... ethnomusicologists are definitely in the minority."

What is this theory that McLean, Stone, and I are referring to? For the most part, it is theory from the social sciences and humanities that goes by various names: for example, social theory, cultural studies, critical theory, literary theory, linguistic theory, psychological theory, postcolonial theory, feminist theory, and philosophical theory (or simply philosophy). In these discursive domains, theory is associated both with ideas (deconstruction, hermeneutics, structuralism, feminism, embodiment, and so on) and with the names of "theorists": earlier writings with Theodor Adorno, Émile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karl Marx, and Max Weber, for instance; more recently with Arjun Appadurai, Homi Babha, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Néstor Garcia Canclini, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault. Clifford Geertz, bell hooks, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Williams, and others.4

These theorists, and their theories, make bold claims about the social and cultural world, claims that have reoriented or changed much thinking about society and culture and that have implications for many fields of study. For the sake of simplicity I will call all these "social theory," regardless of their source in particular intellectual traditions. …

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