This post is inspired by an article published in Times Higher Education this week called Self-reflective study: the rise of ‘mesearch’ (link at the end). This is something I’ve been thinking about consciously when writing up my PhD. When I started out, I think I was seeking for some sort of objective perspective on theology and music. I knew what I thought about some things, but other things I was swayed by whoever I was reading at the time, but then persuaded by someone different with the next book I read. What I didn’t do very well was acknowledge my own perspective, or construct my own arguments. I disclaimed any claims I made by using the passive tense: “perhaps this is the case”, “it could be suggested that”, “this may be interpreted as”. In my write up stage, however, I have learnt that I have to say “I argue here…”, “In this section claim…” etc. I have learnt to make claims for myself.
More importantly for me, though, I acknowledge that all of these claims are subjectively based on my own experiences, opinions, and beliefs. I have been influenced and guided by many other thinkers along the way, but I am now constructing my own ideas based on my own particular context. Initially I struggled to read theologians who talked about music in terms of lyrics and peripherals, but now I realise that their discussion is bound to their context: that it probably the most accessible part of music to them. If you are not an academic musician, you probably don’t hear music in terms of chords, tonality, and musical features, but more by words and sound impressions. I realised I was situated in a unique (OK, you can never say unique in your PhD thesis because someone will come along and disprove you, so I should probably say distinctive or something) position of having a degree in both music and theology (though my lack of undergrad theology meant for lots of catch up work in my postgrad years). So my context is different from other thinkers on the subject.
I have my own musical taste. I am not likely to write about something like gamelan music (or you could put any “non-Western” – for want of a better term – music category here), for the simple reason that it does not form a part of my musical world, I have little or no knowledge of its workings, and it doesn’t interest me. I am likely to write about Western classical music and popular music, because I am immersed in both of these worlds. My undergrad dissertation is a prime example of where my musical tastes collide with my theological work: it was on John Rutter’s Requiem and Mass of the Children. If I was to write about popular music, it would probably be around rock, indie, punk, punk-rock, or something in that sort of almost-alternative-but-still-mainstream musical world (you might have guessed this from some of the blog posts on New Found Glory, OPM, the Metal Mass etc). Strangely, though, it is a little puzzling to me that my PhD thesis has ended up taking my three least favourite eras of classical music as case studies: Classical, Romantic and Modern. Whereas if I was going to choose something to listen to for fun, it would probably be from the Baroque era or earlier. The only explanation I can think of is that I do actually have a lot of interaction with these eras and I find they have a lot to say to theology. I think it is more a case of the PhD develops in ways you don’t quite imagine in the beginning, and takes on a life of its own, and before you know it, there it is, and you hadn’t quite planned the journey but quite like the destination.
I have learnt to acknowledge where I am coming from, as research is always bound to my context. My own research has developed by my own musical experiences over the course of the PhD – I can think of one concert I went to in particular that moved my research on. I also have to acknowledge that I have left out far more than I have put in. My PhD does not touch on popular music at all, though it does take some methodology from theologies of popular culture. There simply isn’t the time or space in any bit of research, whether it is a PhD thesis, a book, or life-time’s work, to give a comprehensive survey of anything. So we have to make academic choices. These choices are always going to be guided by a variety of personal and academic factors, but ultimately mean that there is always and element of me in my research. In other words, as the article says, it is ‘mesearch’.