Spotlight on Interdisciplinary Research #2: ‘Musicologists Have Nothing to Lose but their Chains.’

James Taylor is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, where his work focuses on Soviet music culture in the 1920s, examining the impact of evolutionary biology, criminology, psychiatry and psychology on the field of Soviet musicology. He is also interested in Russian art history and enjoys keeping afloat with events in the post-Soviet space. You can follow James on Twitter @jhht009 and/or Facebook and he was recently elected as the RMA student representative at the recent Bristol RMA Research Students’ Conference (8-10 January 2015). James introduces the second blog for our Spotlight on Interdisciplinary Research series by considering the interdisciplinary nature of his own research, as well as the potential benefits and downsides of crossing disciplinary boundaries, for PhD students and academics in general.


Interdisciplinary research has been one of greatest triumphs in academia to date. It requires researchers to leave behind familiar disciplinary territory for unfamiliar intellectual spaces, in the hope that, through extensive collaboration and communication with other disciplines, new creative pathways will begin to emerge. Like Anna Maria Barry (who wrote the first post in this series on interdisciplinary research), I have a passion for interdisciplinary research and hope to add my own personal perspective to this lively debate. In this blog post, I will discuss my own journey through academia, reflect upon the benefits and difficulties associated with interdisciplinary study and, ultimately, suggest ways in which to further the cause of interdisciplinary collaboration. It is therefore my higher aim to persuade you, the reader, to explore new academic fields and disciplines, which in turn will allow musicology to innovatively progress even further into undiscovered areas.

Moving to a new academic discipline is both a terrifying and exciting expedition. Following a joint-honours undergraduate degree, BA Russian and Music, I was anxious about my future job prospects. I would often naïvely envisage job interview scenarios, the ones where I would be sitting in front of a panel of business experts and hearing the bellows of laughter at the mention of my degree title with the refrain – ‘What use will you be, young man?!’. In the same way, I also felt that I would have to choose between my two favourite subjects, Russian and Music, in the work-related arena. The mixture of anxiety about my future career and the unremitting accounts from graduate friends about the unforgiving post-recession job market lead me to take up postgraduate studies.

Two days before the final deadline in August, I applied and was accepted to study for a Masters in Politics and Economics of Eastern Europe. I was now sitting in conversations discussing the likes of econometric sampling and regression, the ‘three faces of power’, game theory and theories of political corruption. It often left me feeling intimidated by the other students who had been firmly rooted in social sciences throughout the entirety of their academic life. Nevertheless, while it was challenging at times to transition, the ‘transferable skills’ from my previous degree certainly made the move easier and, often, advantageous. For example, when constructing scatter-plot graphs or working with statistics, I would often anecdotally associate my attention to detail from the years of composition classes and my mathematical skills from applying Allen Forte’s set theory. Whilst moving between disciplines gave the appearance of a serious test, it merely required hard work, determination and the application of the acquired analytical skills gained from undergraduate study.

My first experience of interdisciplinary research came in my Master’s dissertation, focusing on political corruption in post-Soviet Russia. As I soon realised, it was impossible to gain a firm understanding of ‘corruption’ by remaining in one discipline. Several fields tend to analyse this phenomenon in a variety of ways. For example, political scientists tend to focus on informal institutions, sociologists on informal networks and anthropologists on corrupt practices. Even the term ‘corruption’ is problematic to define in itself because it remains relative to the social norms of each individual society, i.e. corrupt practices may be perceived as merely helping a friend, and therefore ‘misrecognised’ (in Pierre Bourdieu’s interpretation). It was therefore only possible to acquire a closer understanding of the workings of political corruption through a mixture of disciplines and research methods.

From working on post-Soviet politics, I returned to the world of Soviet musicology with a particular focus on the 1920s. At first, this transition came with a few difficulties as I had an elementary understanding of Soviet historiography and lacked a real solid foundation in the period. I not only had to do a lot of reading to keep up with the broader developments in Soviet musicology and history but equally get up to speed with the language, methodologies and key texts in musicology as a whole. I often made up for this, however, with my ability to translate undiscovered primary source material, from Russian to English, and successfully unite multiple disciplines together in written work. The University of Bristol have also been very supportive with this transition. I have supervisors from both Music and Russian, who have been vital for the cross-fertilisation of fields and subsequently helped me to uncover unexplored territory. Nevertheless, as with my Master’s research, I feel that without an interdisciplinary approach and a broader understanding of all developments within Soviet and European culture and society, it would be very easy to misinterpret events or draw superficial conclusions.

On the one hand, I do share the concerns of not being able to pursue a career in academia post-PhD. As stated in Anna’s previous blog post on interdisciplinary research, pursuing a career in interdisciplinary research can be seen as risky. This is often due to the difficult nature of proving one’s specialism in any single subject area, the effect of REF (Research Excellence Framework) on interdisciplinary recognition and in terms of submitting to high-impact journals which are ‘especially resistant to work that crosses disciplinary boundaries’. In the same way, in times of budgetary cuts, there is a perception (if not fact) that departments tend to serve students firmly within the discipline, which could place barriers in the academic pathways of those engaged in interdisciplinary research. On the other hand, I feel that the majority of limits we have are those we place on our over-critical selves. Anxieties about fitting into a music department or publishing in high-impact musicology journals should not dissuade young academics from pursuing interdisciplinary research or, indeed, tailor our research interests. I have often found that attending both conferences inside and outside of the music world has been important for quelling such anxieties. This has not only granted me a better understanding of how my research fits into a broader context, but also helped provide an exchange of ideas, including new contacts, across a variety of fields. Solely from a networking perspective, being recognised in two or more disciplines has certainly been advantageous and, I hope, could lead to future research opportunities. Nevertheless, it is the feeling of collaboration across multiple fields of research that I derive a deep sense of purpose and value from the wider academic community.

I hope that in the next few years greater attention is turned towards interdisciplinary research. This creative, natural and unavoidable process, occurring across all disciplines, is helping advance new perspectives on periods which once appeared as water-tight grand narratives. It should be encouraged on an institutional level, in terms of increasing financial support for academics pursuing interdisciplinary research, and simultaneously sought after on an individual basis, removing oneself from the utopia of safe territory. If these procedures of breaking through the disciplinary chains are followed, then we can expect even more revolutionary and ground-breaking musicological research within the next few years. To conclude in the spirit of Karl Marx, ‘musicologists have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win!’

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