Ethnomusicology and empiricism (again)

I’ve written about this before, and I suppose this may just be a hobby-horse of mine, and may not matter as much as I think it does, but I notice that the Winter 2012 issue of Ethnomusicology had another “Call and Response” section on experimental methods in which contributors use the term “empiricism” as though it were something other than the normal work of ethnomusicologists. (Academic time is slow, so I’m posting this a year late.) I think it’s important to work to combat this trend. “Empiricism” is something that all (or very very many) ethnomusicologists can and do claim proudly, and I think it’s too bad that the journal is repeatedly reinforcing the idea that the work most of us do is not empirical. We can have conversations about bridging a divide with more scientific disciplines without having to redefine how we’ve long used this term. A couple examples:

  • Lawson contrasts “both ethnomusicology and empirically-based research” (87), “humanists and empiricists” (87) (where it appears that most of us are supposed to be humanists and therefore not empiricists), and “empirically, historically, and ethnographically-derived data” (93) (suggesting that ethnographic fieldwork is not empirical).
  • Zbikowski contrasts “ethnomusicology and the empirical sciences” and “empirical and humanistic methodologies” (125), suggesting that ethnomusicology is not an empirical discipline, and that ethnomusicology instead uses humantistic methodologies.

My graduate training emphasized repeatedly the central importance of fieldwork to our discipline, with the founding story of 20th century anthropology involving a rejection of armchair theorizing in favor of ethnographic fieldwork. That contrast is only meaningful if the task fieldwork accomplishes is to emphasize the rigorous collection of facts over interpretations not grounded in facts (or interpretations of travelogue-style facts whose collection made no efforts at rigor). The whole big methodological idée fixe that we all have beaten into us is that ethnographic fieldwork matters precisely because it is empirical. But in Lawson’s formulation, it seems that “empirical” and “ethnographic” are two different things, which would seem to lump ethnographic fieldwork in with armchair theory as humanistic and non-empirical, and write over more than a century of debate within the human sciences about what methodological rigor should be. I do understand that there’s a meaning of “empirical” that means “experimental,” but it’s not the wider meaning, and it’s certainly not the meaning that most ethnomusicologists I know intend.

I will admit that I may be biased here, but I cringe when Lawson frames this under the theme of “consilience,” an idea that, at least as E.O. Wilson expresses it, I find to be off-putting at best, and usually repugnant (not least because of the idea that to be a humanists is to be categorically not an empiricist, and so “scientists” will come in and show us how to deal with data), and I think we should be extremely wary of offering the sciences a colonizing foothold in our territory. What’s more, humanistic critiques of the sciences are very often made precisely on empirical grounds: whether of evolutionary psychology, neoclassical economics, linguistics, or developmental psychology, the critiques I am familiar with are premised on the idea that presumptively scientific models presuppose empirical claims that are either unavailable or conveniently ignored. (Statistics, of course, are wonderful, and I share Becker’s wish, related by Harwood, to have had some training in those procedures.)

It’s just not at all fair to claim “empiricism” for a group of people that excludes ethnomusicologists. And despite my strong views on the substance of this question of consilience, I think we can bracket that controversy off from this smaller, and hopefully less contentious, question about the term “empiricism,” precisely in the interest of making a possible space for respectful exchanges about the potential for accord with the sciences.

So a general request: Would it be possible, please, to refrain from using “empirical” as though it excludes most of what ethnomusicologists do, at least (at least!) in the pages of our flagship journal?

Because whatever ethnomusicology has been historically, it has always been empirical. What starts to be at least a little offensive in these repeated Call and Response sections is the implication that the non-experimental work that most of us do is not empirical, and rather is “just” humanistic, or somehow lacks rigorous methodological tools for dealing with facts. I am confident that no offense is intended, but the journal keeps taking this term that we all use and that we value immensely, and redefining it to mean something that excludes us. That’s pretty rough.


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