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Creating spaces for co-producing knowledge about music as social action

In early September, Geoff and I both attended the first of York St John University’s International Centre for Community Music (ICCM) Conversations. This session featured a presentation by Stephen Clift titled, The need for robust critique of arts and health research – with reference to music and health. Our attention had been grabbed by the titles of both this presentation and a blog post by Stephen, shared with attendees, that suggested a strong resonance with our work with Agrigento.

Stephen Clift is Emeritus Professor at the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, Faculty of Health and Wellbeing, Christ Church University, Canterbury, UK. You can read more about his important contribution to the field of music, health and wellbeing here.

The catalyst for establishing Agrigento was the identification, by Maria and Geoff, of the need for more critical conversations between musicians, organisations, and researchers about music as social action. This led to Agrigento’s mission: to strengthen connections between practice and research, and create more spaces for reflection, dialogue, and sharing of knowledge.

With this catalyst in mind, Stephen Clift’s words proved strikingly relevant. His blog post, and the supporting research, identified issues to be addressed in the field of arts and health. With Agrigento’s Summary Report of the 2019 Survey of the Field of Music as Social Action having just been released, it is interesting to consider how the issues facing both fields intersect and overlap.

In brief, Stephen identified the need for:

  • robust and critical scholarship
  • engagement between disciplines
  • closer examination of the values and assumptions that underpin the field and the philosophical and ideological challenges at play
  • stronger disciplinary clarity and theoretical frameworks as a foundation for research and practice
  • deeper debate about how to create integrity across both artistic and scientific perspectives
  • consensus on standards for practice and research
  • identification of exemplars of robust research
  • rigorous monitoring and critical assessment of research
  • efforts to address naïve understandings of the ways in which research evidence can inform policy and practice in the field.

Amidst the practical ideas and knowledge shared in the ICCM presentation and discussion, Stephen offered three approaches to thinking critically about music and health: (1) common sense and ‘real world’ scepticism; (2) methodological appraisals of research limitations and bias; and (3) philosophical questioning of assumptions.

Stephen highlighted that a significant barrier to such critical thinking is the reluctance of researchers and practitioners to report and discuss failures or instances in which harm has been caused. He also noted that his critical perspective has led at times to resistance and counter-criticism. Given that his tone could not be more moderate, careful, or diplomatic, there are clearly inherent challenges to doing this kind of work.  

While these shared concerns provide some support for what Agrigento aspires to do, it is also important to reflect on what we are doing in response to these issues.

What, for example, are we doing to overcome the obstacles impeding practitioners and researchers from thinking critically about music as social action?

Fostering dialogue and exchange that support critical work

In his blog post, Dr Clift suggests that critical work might be strengthened by looking at “the relationships between artists, researchers and participants in practical/research projects, with a focus on the idea of ‘co-production’.”

The idea of co-producing knowledge through dialogue and exchange is at the heart of what Agrigento does. It represents a key process that we believe will help to advance the field of music as social action. It therefore lies at the heart of our current work, which is focused on awarding grants for pilot projects.

We will shortly announce the six projects that we are funding in 2020. These projects involve a community of people who are committed to using participatory music making toward positive social outcomes, and ready to think critically and reflexively about the ambiguities, complexities and uncertainties involved. Our aim is to seek out and support individuals and projects who believe in this kind of critically reflexive practice. Each project responds to social issues or needs, weaving together participant-centred music-making and action-oriented research. Our hope is that these projects will help to improve the design and pedagogies of music as social action programs and the preparation of practitioners for this work. 

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