On Activism & Objectivity


A little while ago I was told that research cannot be activist and objective at the same time. Doing activist research is apparently comparable to researching lung cancer with funding from a tobacco company - a highly suspicious activity. Good research and good science is objective and does not aim for specific goals. The research needs to be allowed to develop to wherever the data takes you - if you have in mind what you would like to achieve, your conclusions will be biased. You will only see the results you want to see. The essence of science is the gaining of knowledge, pure and simple. This is what I was told.

Why was I told this, you might ask. Well. I told a group of doctoral students that I admire the Finnish research association Suoni ry. Suoni ry have a motto that goes like this: "activist music research as a tool for social change". I told the other students that I find the motto very bold and inspiring, and that I want my research to bring about social change, too. As far as I'm concerned, I'd much rather change the world than not. Wouldn't you? On their website, Suoni ry specify that by activist research they mean "societal and action-oriented" music research. Themes like gender, race, class, sexuality, and equality come to mind.

My own doctoral research centers on Finnish women composers. One of the main reasons I'm doing it is wanting to make the music of these women more known - in many cases to make it known at all - and to contribute to a more equal concert culture. I want to show that Finnish music history is actually much more varied than previously thought, and that there are many great pieces being left to rot in the archives because Sibelius didn't sneeze on them and because so many people for so many years thought that women are shit at composing. Of course there are many other musicians and researchers doing similar things with similar goals, in and with Suoni ry and elsewhere, but I want to participate in this movement in whatever small way I can.

But let's get back to objectivity in research. I would like to claim that there is no such thing as an objective researcher, because humans are not objects. We're all subjects located in a specific crossroads of time, place, culture, values, preconceptions and so forth. We can only observe and understand the world through our own, very subjective minds. We can - and I think we should - try to acknowledge our own biases and priviledges and such, but I don't think we can completely avoid them. I believe we're on dangerous ground when we start talking about the essence of things, like the essence of science I referred to earlier. Who has decided that science is first and foremost knowledge accumulation? Is it always the most important task of science and why? Is increasing knowledge always a good thing? Science is a human-made endeavour to understand the world. We decide what we research and how - what knowledge is important and what not, what receives funding and what not, and how we use the knowledge we accumulate. Every act of research is a choice that excludes other possible choices. How could this not be affected by subjectivity at some point along the way? Yet there are people that still believe objectivity is a thing.

The European classical music culture in particular has been built on the notion that the standpoint of a Western white upper-class well-educated heterosexual man is a universal and objective standpoint. The musical tradition and canon they produced is objectively collected, based wholly on merit and quality, and most certainly not on any priviledge or exclusion or other tiresome notions. If I would research Chopin or Skrjabin nobody would raise an eyebrow - if I would write an article about how Brahms uses sonata form in an unexpected way, nobody would question it. (Probably nobody would read it, either, but that's beside the point.) However, as soon as my subject turns out to be women, there's eyebrows everywhere. And when I say that my first article is a feminist music analysis of a sonata by a woman composer, oh well. Some eyebrows hit the roof.

I have also been told that research on women composers is in fashion right now, and gets a lot of funding. (I haven't received a penny so far, but I'm happy for the ones who are benefiting from this trend.) Why is it a bad thing, though? Women composers have not been that much researched in the grand scheme of things, and a couple of articles and concerts more will hardly hurt. There's plenty of other stuff going on at the same time, too - it's not as if suddenly women have the entire spotlight and no Beethoven symphony will ever be heard or talked of again. And if there are other subjects deserving attention that seem to be left out, then just bring out your little activist and start campaigning! Every performer and researcher and journalist and person can only do one thing at a time, and I'm tired of listening to complaints of all the things my own research doesn't focus on. My thing is women now, other people will have to do the rest. I'm not stopping anyone else from doing anything and I'm not saying that everyone should focus on women. It's just what I'm interested in right now. Sorry. Also, how fucked up is it to complain that I'm doing what I'm doing only for the money! I am a musician, ergo I'll die in poverty. If I cared about money, I would be an accountant or a stockbroker or something. Yes, I want to change the world, but I don't expect to get paid...

So how will I try to balance my so-called activism and objectivity in my research? I'm not sure yet, but I'm trying to figure it out. If you have any great ideas, let me know!