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Schizophrenic or Self-Reflexive? : Problems Associated with the Study of ‘Sectarian Music’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland

By rmablogadmin / / Feature / No Comments
Stephen Millar began his Ph.D. at Queen’s University Belfast in October, supported by a Doctoral Studentship from the AHRC. In this blog post, Stephen shares his project with us: the ethical concerns, fieldwork, and his motivation and objectives. Stephen also has an M.Phil. from Cambridge, and holds separate degrees in both Music and Politics. You can find him on Twitter as @StephenRMillar.

When working on this blog post I had one prevailing emotional response: fear. In addition to writing for people that know how to use punctuation properly (I think I got that colon right – I was adding emphasis) I was worried how to strike the balance between telling people enough about my research so as to sound interesting, but not so much as to prejudice bands from dealing with me in the future.

Let me explain…

My research could, and probably would, be grouped under the banner of ‘hate music’ and that’s problematic. It’s problematic for lots of reasons: first off, who gets to decide what qualifies as ‘hate music’; who (really) would identify as producing, purchasing (I’m told some still do it) or consuming ‘hate music’, a pejorative term that would likely repel all but the most extreme examples of the genre; and how do you deal with bands that reject the label, which the academy you represent cast upon them, while having to present yourself as a researcher from said academy?

It’s tricky.

Foucault deals with the first question in his work on labelling and social control, while the second and third are issues that many music scholars are having to negotiate as they extend the boundaries of academic discourse into areas that are morally ambiguous and scholastically underrepresented.

My research examines the use and reception of anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant music in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The two are often grouped under the banner of ‘sectarian music’ but, like ‘hate music’, the term is fraught with difficulties and almost all of those producing and consuming such music would challenge, sometimes violently, any move to delimit their music to such pejorative categories.

The Scottish Government recently introduced a law making the singing of ‘sectarian songs’ punishable by an unlimited fine and up to five years in prison. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 was introduced to tackle the religious bigotry between Scotland’s Catholic and Protestant communities – which is often channelled through football, songs, chants, parades and the internet – yet it was opposed by football supporters groups, the legal establishment and every other major political party in Scotland.

The law criminalises the singing of ‘sectarian songs’ but the government has not stated which songs are banned; this task is left to the discretion of the police. For those that enjoy singing these songs the situation is potentially Kafkaesque; for researchers it further problematises the already difficult task of speaking to these bands, and their fans, about the music. At a time when it’s not clear if you’re breaking the law by singing these songs in public, who would talk to a researcher and discuss their reasons for doing so? Further, could those who speak out in spite of, or because of, the law be trusted given the potential danger in doing so; are these fearless few representative of the larger group?

At the same time, aspiring ethnomusicologists wishing to adhere to the Society for Ethnomusicology’s (SEM) guidelines on ethics are doubly disadvantaged as, in addition to the distrustfulness of the bands and fans, we’re morally obliged to maintain an honest relationship with our subjects, thus creating a tension between researchers being honest about their reason for studying a given culture and how that culture chooses to represent itself under observation.

My interest in the topic grew out of a junior year abroad spent studying at the University of Miami. As part of a class entitled ‘Musical Nationalism’ we were set the first chapter of Ethnicity, Identity and Music, edited by Martin Stokes, which describes the rituals of a 12th July parade in Belfast and discusses how these are perceived within and outside the Protestant community. My classmates were shocked by Stokes’ account but, being from the west of Scotland, I saw parallels with my own society. I returned to Glasgow and sought out literature on Orange parades and Catholic interpretation in Scotland, but was surprised to find relatively little in comparison to Northern Ireland; this despite the fact that Glasgow has more Orange and Republican parades each year than Belfast and Londonderry combined.

While there have been various anthropological, ethnomusicological, and musicological studies of music and sectarianism in Northern Ireland, the few that focus on Scotland have tended to do so from a historical perspective, sidestepping the difficulties of conducting fieldwork with fans and bands, compiling an ethnography, and representing the music dispassionately. It is this task I have set myself with my Ph.D. Yet my findings will be confined by the limits of distrustful research subjects – mindful of the legality, or not, of the songs they sing in light of the Scottish Government’s new Act – and the SEM’s inflexible guidelines on the need for honesty with said subjects. And with this realisation, crystallised in print, I return, full-circle, to my opening, prevailing emotional response: fear.

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