Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Challenge Question answer for Riyad

Here's Riyad's challenge question:
Kunst (1959) wrote the following as a definition of ethnomusicology: “The study of ethnomusicology… is the traditional music and musical instruments of all cultural strata of mankind from the so-called primitive peoples to the civilized nations. Our science, therefore, investigates all tribal and folk music and every kind of non-Western art music.”
Is it accurate to call Ethnomusicology a science? Comment with respect to the objectivity/subjectivity, research methodology, the element of discourse, and ethical dilemmas within the field.

 Here's my first response:

According to Webster's Dictionary, the definition of science is
1: the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
2 a : a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study <the science of theology>
  b : something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge <have it down to a science>
3 a : knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method
  b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena : natural science
4: a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws <cooking is both a science and an art>

In a nutshell, science is not only the "knowledge attained through study or practice," or "knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method ", but also a system of acquiring knowledge. This system uses its scientific methodologies to describe and explain certain phenomena. This definition confirmed that in a broader sense, science is not only limited to the study of the physical world; it is also concerned with society and human behaviors, such as anthropology, economics, sociology, history, etc.

It is widely accepted that we distinguish social sciences with natural sciences. But even within the realm of social sciences, there are two distinguished views held by scholars ever since the early 19th century: the positivists and the Interpretivists. Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that data derived from sensory experience, and logical and mathematical treatments of such data, are together the exclusive sources of all authentic knowledge. Obtaining and verifying data that can be received from senses is known as empirical evidence. This view holds that the society operates according to laws like the physical world. Interpretivist social scientists, by contrast, may use social critique or symbolic interpretation rather than constructing empirically falsifiable theories, and thus treat science in its broader sense.

Ethnomusicology, to my understanding, pairs music analysis with characterizations of value systems behind esthetics via field field work. It also closely combines with Ethnography, which studies a culture group and produces a written document to stand as an exploration/explanation of cultural practices among given population. These aspects of Ethnomusicology therefore fits the definition of social science for three reasons. First, the main focus of Ethnomusicology is to understand and give explanations to social phenomenons and human behavior, which is similar to Anthropology and Sociology, only with an additional musical analysis aspect.  Second, the strict requirement of engaging in fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, indicates the potential use of scientific methods that includes observation, research hypothesis, prediction, experimentation and conclusion(one of several of these methods at least are used, maybe not in a strict way sometimes). Third, even though similar studies/researches had existed for a long time, Ethnomusicology had not been recognized to stand on its own as a field until the 20th century, a lot of its earlier researches were actually done by anthropologists and sociologists who treat music as a cultural aspect. Therefore, the methodologies and concepts in Ethnomusicology, from my point of view, originally came from the field anthropology and sociology, which are certainly categorized as social science.

Notably, both quantitative and qualitative researches are used in Ethnomusicology researches; different ethnomusicologist has different approaches in how much of each is used.  Jaap Kunst clearly is a very technical and scientifical person. His researches proved him a positivist.

However, I have some concerns about the reliability and authenticity of ethnomusicology research processes including observations, data collecting and etc). One of the reasons is: a lot of the ethnomusicologists(especially in the earlier days) are not very objective because they are often westerners who have preconceptions about non-western people and culture. Kunst himself, for example, in his quote mentions “...all cultural strata of mankind from the so-called primitive people to civilized nations...” He assumes the western music as the highest form/class of music and tags other culture’s music forms with their social/economical status. If some ethnomusicologists observes a cultural group with a pre consumption that was not “scientifically” verified, then his/her research could be biased/false from the ground up. Although this is not to say that ethnomusicology has to be completely subjective in order to be a science. Similar to Anthropology and Sociology, it is inevitable for different individual scientist to shine different light on a subject. As long as the objectives are clearly made-aware and acknowledged,  the research observations and conclusions should still be considered reliable and scientific.


  1. In terms of the definitions you posted above, I was referring mostly to the third one. If one were to interpret science as the state of knowing, then everything would be science. The fourth definition is also an interesting one - dealing with artistic practices as scientific. Cooking is indeed an art and a science, as is painting, playing an instrument, etc.

    The most important distinction between Pure Science and Social Science (Ethnomusicology included) is that at every step the former can be replicated in order to verify results and findings. My question was not about whether Ethnomusicology is a Social Science - it was more about whether Social Sciences, with all its subjectivity, can be called Science at all. When an anthropologist sets out with a hypothesis and tried to find an answer through the scientific method that is all very well. But the chances are that it will not be able to replicate the results. When you interview someone you present yourself as an element of bias. People will respond differently, and we may interpret things differently. Using social critique and symbolic interpretation is not in tandem with the scientific method.

    As an informal definition, people often say that Science is the search for truth. In this case, Ethno and the Social Sciences definitely can be included as sciences. But the question remains - what happens if the truth differs from person to person? Then is it still truth? In which case, is it still Science?

  2. Pure science is to study the natural laws of science. These phenomoena do not rely on the subjective understanding of human existence. And the social science, by contrast, studies social phenonmenons about people. You mentioned that the most important distinction between pure science and social science, by comparing the methodologies, is that at every step the former can be replicated in order to verify results and findings. And it is certainly true that, when it comes to working with people(interviewing, observing...etc), the ethnomusicologists(or any social scientists) can not claim subjectivity to his/her research. The step he/she took to verify his/her hyposis certainly can never be replicated. Even if someone else would attempt to stand in his/her shoes and do exactly he/she did, the study subjects are simply not going to be the same because of time passed and various reasons. Although, perhaps there could be several social scientists with different backgrounds/point of views working simultaneously together/separately on the same research project and set control groups even. It might push the results closer to the truth-the so called truth. The question still remains what is truth? Can all the physics laws be called truth despite the fact that every once a while we still run into problems such as for dark matter, dark energy and the Pioneer and flyby anomalies. Current theories gravity, for example, i think, are poorly tested in the weak-acceleration regime and it could be possible that we still don't undertand gravity as much as we think.