Unpacking music in post-conflict settings

I enrolled in PhD studies (at Griffith University) at the end of February, and have since been throwing myself into it on a fulltime basis (taking a bit of time out here and there to lead short-term composition/improvisation projects, which are the main content focus on this blog). Let me introduce you to my big, crunchy PhD topic – I’m examining the impact and contributions (if any) of music education initiatives in post-conflict settings. I want to look at some big initiatives from the past that had lots of international support and media attention, such as the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as projects that are in operation right now.

Lots of booksI find I love the luxury of time that I have to settle into my topic, to read, and then write responses to what I read, and to reflect and ponder and observe the way these reflections become new branches or nodes on the tree-like structure of my topic.

Where does the reading start for a topic like this? Surprisingly (given the amount of media attention these initiatives can garner) there is little written specifically on post-conflict music education initiatives themselves. There is a bit more if you go into the area of ‘music and social change’ (El Sistema and other similar projects around the globe – see the links I’ve added to my Blogroll for some of these) and there is some literature on the Israel/Palestine conflict (although this work cannot be considered ‘post’-conflict – I am limiting my scope to post-conflict settings at this stage). Music therapy has also turned its attention to conflict settings in the last 20 years, so there are some interesting perspectives and accounts to be found there as well.

This is also a multi-disciplinary topic. I find I am looking at writing from a wide range of disciplines, including (music) sociology, anthropology, conflict studies, international development, music therapy, education, peace-building… to name just a few.

In these first few weeks, my approach is to consider some of the reasons behind the existence of the kinds of music initiatives I am interested in (which are music schools and community arts centres that offer opportunities for participation in music activities), and focus my literature searches and reading in response to these.

I have found that these kinds of music initiatives may have multiple goals and agendas, including:

  • bringing opposing parties together and/or communicating peaceful messages to combatants);
  • healing and therapy;
  • social connections;
  • diversion for at-risk young people;
  • education and (informal) learning opportunities;
  • regeneration of cultural knowledge and traditions;
  • asserting (or creating a new) identity;
  • beauty, joy and optimism;
  • escape from the brutality/depressing reality of daily life and recent memories
  • the necessity of creativity and creative outlets to survival in unpredictable, unstable environments.

Therefore I’ve been reading everything I find about arts in post-conflict settings, as well as under the ‘music and conflict transformation’ banner, and more generally about ‘education and reconciliation’. It’s a pretty stimulating, fascinating, complex topic to be exploring, so in these early, heady days of full-time research, I am wildly, unreservedly, passionately excited about my project. Yes! (It’s important to declare this right now, because the standard PhD narrative has the researcher hitting a bit of a slump in the second year. I want to be able to return to this post to remind myself of this early energy :-)).

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4 comments so far

  1. Mandy Carver on

    Go for it Gillian! Lucky you! I’m looking forward to reading the posts and being inspired to think in new directions.

  2. Gail Barnes on

    Set your own path–you are more knowledgeable and have more real world experience than the average Ph.D. I did mine after 18 years of public school teaching and loved almost every minute (there were a few moments in statistics that weren’t completely pleasant 🙂

    • Gillian Howell on

      Thanks Gail and Mandy for these comments. Yes, I find it strange to imagine a person going into PhD study straight from their undergrad studies… a bit part of my decision to start this research degree is a real yearning to have time to reflect deeply on issues that relate to my practice, to dig into its depths and all the unusual and complex contexts that are revealed. It is also proving to be lovely to have a break from going into different schools everyday of the week. I hadn’t been expecting that – I thought I’d miss it (the teaching/workshop leading) more!

  3. […] tension that arises for me in my research topic is about the perceived (and/or assumed) ‘power of music’. There is a considerable […]


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