The past few days, the friend in whose apartment I’m temporary staying returned. She’s in the city for a week in order to finish her sociology thesis on musicians. I want to make a more general point in this blog post, inspired by her thesis title, on a methodological topic. Just yesterday, she changed the title of the thesis to “Music Creators in a Contemporary Capitalist Reality“. Although such a title sounds very sexy and might attract some attention of people in the academic world; I don’t feel very comfortable with it.
Music Creators: OK; Contemporary: Fine; Capitalist: Uuumm…; Reality: What?
I will ignore the last one in the list because it doesn’t really play a role (very un-Latourian from my side). In her explanation, “Reality” in the title implies that there are multiple realities and the capitalist reality is only one. If the title were “Music Creators in Contemporary Capitalism” it might imply that the whole of reality is capitalist. Keeping capitalism, instead of “reality”, I’ll use her definition of art to make my point on the chronology in the making of concepts.
The core of the thesis is a set of interviews with a broad range of questions going from “Who inspires you?” to “What do you think about the influence of major labels?”. From these interviews, the idea that capitalism is stifling the artistic work is taken out as the main topic and analysed.
In my view, there are two ways to start this research; parallel with two ways of organizing the thesis. The first way is to take a certain theory, define the key concepts, and take this as a guideline/framework throughout the thesis. Structurally, the thesis has a long introduction in which the analytic framework is set. Through this framework, the interviews can be analyzed. The second option is to take certain methodological tools of how to follow the actors. Through this process of following, the interviewees can create their own world with their own concepts and categories. The result is a small introduction and it’s only during the interviews that concepts might arise. The sociologist can play after the collection of data a role by summarizing and organizing the received data.
Either concepts as the result of a research (bottom-up from the actors)
Or pre-existing concepts applied by the researcher (top-down).
The First Option: Using Capitalism and Art as a Start.
Step one: Define capitalism. Let’s define capitalism in a common way with its two most fundamental characteristics. (1) The accumulation of capital and (2) the marketisation or commodification of increasingly more things (especially of labor time).
Step two: Define art. I’ll take a rudely hypershortened version of the one used by her: Art is a creative activity aiming at independence.
Step three: Bring the two definitions together. By defining art as something independent and capitalism (partly) as the commodifaction of labor time, there is no way to avoid a conflict between the two.
Step four: Interview artists. This step became redundant, because we already know based on our concepts what’s happening. Artists are forced into our capitalist economic structure and will lose their independence and the relation with their artistic products (alienation). The capital accumulation process implies a growing trend; not only of the economy as a whole, but also of individual businesses. The larger the corporation, the more layers and structures and increasing alienation from the product at the end of the musical assembly line.
NOTE: Both concepts can play a huge role in structuring the thesis and a critical scrutiny of the topic. They bring something to the table and using them is defendable. But despite all the arguments and seemingly good analysis based on these and other concepts, the cart is put in front of the horse. Something went wrong in the chronology of the sociologists’ research.
NOTE: We might define capitalism and art in another way. Fore example, I like the definition of art in Levi Bryant’s latest book. But my argument is not about the specific definitions of the concepts at hand. The point is that concepts and categories are made by the sociologist based on reasoning from other sociologists, philosophers and whatnot. Afterwards they’re smashed together to see what comes out of it. Some might skip the last part, but not confronting the concepts merely creates confusion and vague research. Once you take up the task of creating the structure of a reality in which your interviewees are working, you should take your responsibility of pushing it to the end. But at that point we enter the jungle of theoretical discussions we shouldn’t have gotten into in the first place.
The Second Option: Following Actors in the Creation of their Own Reality.
What if the our definitions aren’t nuanced enough? What if the capitalist economy as defined above isn’t all there is?
Before starting any study on this topic, we might look around a bit and see what friends in the music world are telling us over a pint. Artists make art for themselves, to share with others, to gain social status, to exchange a gig for a roof and a meal, and many other reasons.
Just going through this list of aspects that come up, we can already assume a network of relations of the musician in the different modes of exchange that’s more complex and diverse than the earlier defined capitalist one. Of course, the first method might bump into these examples as well. Yet all these difference and subtleties will be marked as exceptions, outcasts, or more generally, a relational structure that diverts from the capitalist standard (a standard put forward by the sociologist).
What to do?
The scary question that often pops up is: So what should the sociologist do? Just sit, listen/watch and write?
Firstly, searching the right vocabulary to start the conversation and the thesis is tough in itself.
- If the question is about musicians and their inspiration, the results can be expected to be very diverse. Yet, you can’t start by pushing forward capitalism as a huge player before the interviewees have said anything.
- If you want to study musicians from the economic point of view, you might go into the different modes of exchange. “Economy” is often defined as the science of the efficient allocation of means. “Capitalism” is a a specific kind of exchange structure. Again, capitalism might be one of the answers, but it can’t be the starting point.
In any case, these two examples are far from perfect. More than anything, this shows the difficult task of the sociologist.
Secondly, there is lots of work involved in following the actors. It’s not something you can take lightly. Partly because of the hours of interviews and partly because of organizing and summarizing what has been said.
Summarized: Concepts and categories play an important, active and forming role in reality. It’s not up to the sociologist to create and apply them. Instead, one should cautiously jump into the topic and let the actors create their own reality (including concepts and categories).