Music helps sociologists to hit high notes

The unexpectedly musical background of many sociologists might explain their academic success, Glasgow professor argues

December 6, 2023
Illustration: a man plays a piano on a magic carpet obviously held up by strings
Source: Getty Images

Music can stir the emotions and fire the imagination, but can it make you a better academic? For sociology, at least, the answer is yes, according to a professor who has chronicled how an unusually high number of the subject’s leading lights were accomplished musicians who performed live throughout their careers.

In a new paper, Les Back, head of sociology at the University of Glasgow, explains how “sociologists very often have extracurricular lives as musicians” – a trend he traces from sociology’s founding fathers Max Weber, Theodor Adorno and W. E. B. Du Bois through to the likes of Howard Becker and Roland Barthes (both jazz pianists) and into the present day, with several former professional musicians making the leap into academia.

“We tend to think of Weber as this very austere German intellectual, but he was also a keen singer and played the piano, and went on to write the first sociology of music,” Professor Back told Times Higher Education, saying he was inspired to examine the topic by his “parallel life as journeyman guitarist performing in clubs and bars”.

Professor Back spoke to 28 sociologists about their musical hinterlands for the paper published in Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. Among them were the renowned cultural critic Paul Gilroy, now professor of humanities at UCL (a talented guitarist), Canadian data sociologist Evelyn Ruppert, based at Goldsmiths, University of London (a jazz trumpeter), and David Beer, professor of sociology at the University of York (formerly an indie rock band guitarist).

“There is something about music that lends itself to sociology and helps to give sociologists an imaginative perspective on the world,” said Professor Back, who said he believed “listening to and playing music [can be] a spur to be brave and bold in their work” and make them “attentive to the unfolding nature of society”.

For Professor Becker, whose classic 1963 study on social deviance, Outsiders, was based on his experiences playing jazz piano in Chicago strip joints as a young academic, music helped to take the sociologist out of the “taken-for-granted world” of campus life and see society “through its edges”, explained Professor Back, who interviewed the American theorist over the course of several years before his death in August.

Contemporary scholars have also been drawn into sociology through music, explained Professor Beck. The Goldsmiths sociologist Emma Jackson was a founding member of the Sunderland indie band Kenickie – fronted by singer-turned-Desert Island Discs presenter Lauren Laverne – and told him how her musical background had encouraged her to “experiment…with different forms of writing” and “create things as a group rather than always be this sort of lone wolf academic”.

Juggling a musical life with academia is, however, becoming much harder, said Professor Back, who spoke to several younger sociologists who, faced with more precarious employment, had put their instruments in storage to focus on their careers.

“Pursuing music was a luxury they couldn’t afford, even those who’d had some professional success as musicians. That’s a real shame because they felt they were losing a part of themselves from which inspiration and ideas often come.”

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