Agency, Chance, and Social Structure

Way back in April of last year, I wrote a blog post about human agency.  For those of you who missed it, the term agency basically refers to our human ability to make choices that influence the course of our lives.  I love the concept of agency, because after learning about it, I felt empowered to make changes in my life that seem to be working out quite well.  It gave me (and still gives me) a sense of control over my own destiny that I find very reassuring.

However, I have read quite a bit more about agency since then, and I now know that agency is not quite as powerful as I would like it to be.  An individual’s agency is typically constrained by a number of factors, including chance and social structures.  Many scholars (e.g., Harris, 2012; Pinker, 2002; Wegner, 2002) argue that agency and related concepts like freewill are merely cognitive illusions.  They say we don’t have the power to shape our own lives, mainly because our biological predispositions and social groups are so much more powerful.

Although their arguments are quite compelling, I personally believe that agency exists, in part because I want to.  It would just be too depressing to feel that I couldn’t control my actions.  Furthermore, I truly believe that I have acted as an agent of change in my own life, though the agency doubters would argue that this is because the illusion of agency is so compelling.

Certainly, where and when you are born determines what your life will be like to a large extent.  The language you speak, the foods you eat, and the education you receive are just a few examples of how your life is shaped by “the lottery of birth.”  More importantly, your genetic makeup and family relationships are matters of chance.  If you happen to be healthy, attractive, intelligent, and born into a family that wants you, can support you, and lives in a safe place, lucky you!  If not, bummer!

On a separate note, I recently saw a documentary called The Lottery of Birth that I highly recommend.  If you’re the kind of person who reads or watches blogs like this one, you’d almost certainly enjoy it, though not in the “Haha!” or “Yippie!” sense.  It’s kind of disturbing, but also inspiring and very thought-provoking.

Anyhow, your ability to deliberately shape your own life is constrained by a variety of factors.  Part of the issue is that many of our daily “decisions” are not decisions at all, but rather the product of our habits and social conditioning.  So it’s not clear to what extent people “choose” their actions and beliefs, and to what extent are our actions and beliefs are unconscious mimicking of what the people around us do and believe.

However, regardless of whether agency truly exists or not, humans undoubtedly have the ability to experience a sense of agency.  According to a variety of scholars (e.g., Bandura, 2006; Ryan & Deci, 2006) believing we can deliberately influence our lives is good for our mental health, even if our actual control over our life circumstances is extremely limited.  Bandura (2006) also argued that people are better able to influence their life circumstances when they believe they can.  Even if agency is an illusion, it’s an illusion that improves people’s lives.  So I, for one, am happy to be deluded.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with my dissertation.  In a nutshell, chance and social structures contribute to shaping musical development.  People are born with physical and mental characteristics that either enable or constrain their musical abilities.  They are also born into social groups that (1) have certain musical beliefs and values and (2) support or discourage specific musical activities.  If you are born in India, you will probably learn about Indian music.  If you are born in China, you will probably learn about Chinese music.  Etc., etc.

Furthermore, chance and social structures continue to influence your development throughout life.  The musical development of one of the participants in my study, for example, was shaped by the untimely deaths of three of his music teachers (on separate occasions).  He had no control over these events, and when they occurred, he had no choice but to find new teachers.

The developmental trajectories of the participants in my study were significantly influenced by whatever musical opportunities and activities were available in their social environments.  The classical, jazz and musical theatre participants had plenty of opportunities to learn about their chosen genres in school. whereas the rock and hip hop participants had almost no opportunities to make music in school.

According to my research, agency also contributes to shaping musical development.  As I mentioned in my last post, developing musicians access musically-significant resources through their network connections.  However, just having resources is not enough.  For significant development to occur, a person has to actually use his or her resources.  One participant in my study, for example, grew up in a very musical family and took some guitar lessons at a young age when his mom signed him up for lessons.  However, he wasn’t at all interested in learning about music at the time and never practiced.  As a result, his skills were unremarkable.  When he reached eighth grade, he suddenly decided that he wanted to be a rock musician and started teaching himself to play guitar.  He practiced a ton and became amazingly good in a very short amount of time.  Although he’d had the resources available to him all along, they didn’t produce any significant musical growth until he decided to take advantage of them.  In other words, musicians contribute to shaping their own developmental trajectories by using available resources and seeking desired resources.

I could go on and on, but this post is too long as it is.  In my next post, I’ll describe my theory of how developmental trajectories in music are constructed, which basically draws together the ideas I’ve presented in my last several posts.  You’ll probably have to wait a couple weeks for that though, because next Tuesday I defend my dissertation (Yay!) and after that I’ll probably have some editing to do (Boo hiss!).  So thanks for your patience.  Until next time, happy learning!


Resource Flows in Social Networks

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the goal of my dissertation was to understand how social relationships influence musical development.  To accomplish this goal, I compared the social networks of 5 young musicians, using a qualitative form of social network analysis (SNA).

There a lot of talk about social networks these days, thanks to websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, though the term is used somewhat differently in academic contexts.  The field of SNA is huge and varied, so I probably should have done a whole post on that before trying to explain how it relates to my dissertation.  But since I neglected to do that, I’ll take a moment here to quickly summarize what social networks are why researchers care about them.

The term social network refers to the composite structure of an individual’s social relationships.  SNA is based on the premise that social life is created by relationships and the patterns they form.  Social network analysts map social relations to understand how “resources” flow from one network member to another.  The resulting diagrams show how people are connected to one another, illustrating, for example, who knows who and how close or distant their relationships are.  Researchers are typically interested in both the content and pattern of relationships.

Although the term “resource” is frequently used in social network literature, it is rarely, if ever, defined.  Because I was struggling to find a definition, I emailed a number of prominent researchers to ask for help.  Many of them were kind enough to respond.  They confirmed my belief that no firm definition exists.  However, Alexandra Marin said, “If you forced me to define it right now I would say it’s something (tangible or not) useful that can pass from one person to another.”  Considering that some social network researchers study how diseases and self-destructive behaviors flow through social networks, I would argue that it makes sense to remove the word useful from that definition.  Researchers use the term resources to describe material goods, services, information, attitudes, beliefs, social support, etc.  In other words, resources can be almost anything, positive or negative, that passes from person to person.

Social networks are significant for human development, because the experiences and learning opportunities we have are largely dependent on who we know.  This is especially critical for young children who typically don’t know many people and cannot independently establish new relationships.  Many children interact almost exclusively with family members during the first few years of their lives.  This means they only have access to their family members’ resources.  If these resources are lacking in terms of quantity or quality, the child’s development could potentially suffer.

To understand how musical development occurs, it’s important to consider what musical resources a person has access to in his or her environment and how he or she makes use of these resources.  In my study, I identified a broad range of musically-significant resources that participants in my study accessed through their network connections.  A partial list of these includes exposure to music, access to instruments and other equipment, musical instruction, transportation to musical events, support and encouragement, practice or rehearsal space, career guidance, website design, respect and/or recognition, discipline, camaraderie, money, etc.  These resources were both tangible and intangible.  Some were directly musical, others were not.

For the most part, the participants in my study had access to plenty of resources, which facilitated their musical growth.  However, one participant was struggling to access the resources he needed to achieve his musical goals.  Specifically, he lacked money to buy the equipment he needed and opportunities to promote his music and pursue a career in music.  His family and friends wanted to help him and tried to help him, but they didn’t have the information, money, and social connections he needed either.  Obviously, network members can only provide whatever resources they have.  The quality and type of resources people have depends in large part on their past experiences and interactions.

In general, resources are finite.  Some people have more resources than others, but with the possible exception of “the 1%,” no one has access to unlimited resources.  Schools and arts organizations in particular often struggle with resource shortages.  Determining how resources should be shared and distributed is, therefore, a tricky ethical question.  If there aren’t enough resources for everyone to have all they want, how should what is available be divvied up?  Although I have some thoughts about how this question could be answered, which I will share in an upcoming post, I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to this problem.  Furthermore, as I’ll discuss more in my next post, just having resources isn’t enough.  According to my research, you have to USE your resources for development to occur.

Throughout the process of conducting this study, I spent considerable time reflecting on (1) what resources I have, (2) what resources I need, (3) what resources I want, (4) what resources the people I know have that I could possibly access if I wanted to, and (5) how I can use all those resources to accomplish my goals.  I’ve especially been thinking about how my personal time, energy, and money are limited resources that I should spend carefully.  This may sound morbid, but I have become very aware of the fact that I will not live forever.  As a result, I want to be sure that I use my remaining time well.  This has led me to seriously consider what is important to me and what is a waste of my time and energy.  I’ll be talking more about this in a future post, but for now I’ll just say that l’ve already used more than my fair share of resources in life and now it’s time for me to help other people get access to the resources they need .

Anyhow, I’ll leave you with that for today.  Until next time, happy learning!


Dissertation Study Design

Don’t bother reading this post.  I recommend watching the video instead.  There’s an important visual element that you’ll miss if you read it.  

As I mentioned in my last post, the overall goal of my dissertation was to understand how social relationships influence musical development.  I used qualitative research methods, which basically means that I didn’t have a lot of participants, but I examined the experience of each one in great detail.  Quantitative studies, on the other hand, typically include large numbers of participants, but gather less detailed data about each one.  Whereas quantitative studies investigate what, where, and when questions, qualitative studies look at why and how things happen as well.  I wanted to know why and how musical development occurs.

My study was structured as a collective case study.  The unit of analysis was a musician’s social network.  What this means is that I compared the social networks of five musicians.  Each network was a separate “case.”  I gathered data for one case at a time.

The participants in my study were five young musicians (ages 16-18) and 3-4 members of each musician’s social network.  Each musician represented a specific genre of music (viz., rock, hip hop, jazz, musical theatre, and classical).  They were nominated for participation in the study, based on their exceptional skill levels, by adult leaders in their respective musical communities.  The other participants were selected by the musician-participants, based primarily on how significantly they influenced the musicians’ development.  These people were mostly family members, teachers, and friends.

My data collection process for each case began with an observation of the musician’s musical activities.  In every case this ended up being a performance, though it didn’t have to be.  I then asked the musician to put together a list of his or her favorite or most developmentally influential musical works for me to listen to.  The purpose of these two steps was to help me get an initial sense of the musicians’ practices and preferences, and acclimate to their musical worlds.

Each musician then participated in a series of three interviews, all of which were recorded.  During the first interview, we discussed the musician’s background, from first musical memory to future goals.  We also talked about the musician’s non-musical interests and activities.  I later compiled a list of people the musician had mentioned in the first interview, which we used in the second interview to help us construct a “participant-aided sociogram.”

A participant-aided sociogram is a graphic representation of an individual’s social network that is made by that person himself or herself.  The point is not to create a 100% accurate social network diagram, though of course accuracy is welcome.  The true goal is to stimulate thought and conversation about the participant’s relationships and reveal their perspectives on those relationships.  For this study, I was interested in examining musically-influential social relationships, so I asked participants to include only people who had contributed their musical development on their sociograms,

If you ignored my advice earlier and are reading this post instead of watching the video (perhaps because you can’t stand the sound of my voice, which according to a few YouTube commentators is terribly irritating), at least watch from 3:50 to 9:30, where I explain in detail how participant-aided sociograms are made and present my sociogram.

At the end of the second interview, the musician and I decided together which of his or her musically influential social partners I should interview.  We chose people who were (1) highly influential and (2) available to be interviewed.  In every case, at least one of these people ended up being a parent, though there was no requirement that parents be included.

Between the second and third interviews with the musicians, I interviewed these influential people.  The questions I asked focused mainly on the individual’s musical background and perspective on how he or she contributed to the musician-participant’s development.

I then interviewed the musician one final time.  During this interview, we discussed an example of the musician’s work, focusing on who had contributed to the musician’s ability to create that work.  We also addressed any lingering questions and discussed my ongoing analysis.  I told the musicians what I thought their stories demonstrated about how musical development occurs and asked for their feedback on my interpretation.

Rather than waiting until all the interviews were finished to analyze my data, I collected and analyzed data at the same time.  First, I transcribed all the interviews, which is an incredibly tedious and time-consuming task.  I then used grounded theory analysis strategies to develop a theoretical interpretation of how developmental trajectories in music are constructed.  I have a feeling that most people who read or watch this blog won’t be particularly interested in the nitty-gritty details of how grounded theory analysis works, so I’m not going to spend much time discussing it.  In a nutshell, you “code” or name segments of data and then look for commonalities among these codes to develop overarching themes.  These themes become the basis of the researcher’s theoretical interpretation of whatever phenomenon he or she is studying.  I used this process to develop a theory of how musicians’ developmental trajectories are constructed.  I’ll discuss that theory in an upcoming post.

That pretty much covers my study design.  In all seriousness, I recommend you try making a sociogram of your own using the process I described earlier, even if it’s just a little mini-version jotted down on a piece of paper.  It could work for any type of development that applies to you: musical, athletic, professional, spiritual, moral, etc.  It’s a great way to stimulate personal reflection on how you became the person you are, and it would prepare you well for my next post, which will be about how information and resources flow through social networks.

Thanks so much for watching/reading this.  Until next time, happy learning!


Dissertation Introduction

In this first dissertation-related post, I will provide a brief overview of my study and tell you what to expect in the next few posts.  In a nut shell, the goal of my dissertation was to examine how social relationships influence musical development.  I wanted to know how the people you know contribute to your musical skills and knowledge.  To do this, I used a qualitative approach to social network analysis, which I will describe in detail in my next post.  But for now, I’ll just mention that thinking of musical influence in terms of social networks allowed me to examine many different types of social relationships in the context of one study, which most studies of musical development don’t do.  Most studies of musical development look at the influence of one or more specific types of relationships, typically with parents, teachers, and/or peers.

As I mentioned a few months back in a post summarizing current research on musical development, most studies also look exclusively at classical musicians in Western countries.  This, of course, leads to a rather incomplete understanding of what musical development is and how it occurs.  To combat this problem, I decided to compare the developmental trajectories of musicians in five different genres, specifically rock, hip hop, jazz, musical theatre, and classical music.

Plenty of other researchers have demonstrated that the musical preferences, knowledge, and skills people acquire generally reflect those of their social groups.  People construct their individual musical practices and beliefs about music through social interaction with those around them.  In other words, if your family and friends like country music, you probably will too.  I wanted to figure out how this process actually works.

I started with two research questions: (1) How do young musicians’ social relationships influence the course of their musical development? (2) How are understandings about music transmitted through social networks?  As is typical in qualitative research, these questions were intentionally quite broad, to allow more specific questions to emerge as the study progressed.  Ultimately, I ended up focusing on how developmental trajectories in music are constructed.  I came up with a somewhat goofy metaphor to describe this process, which I’ll share with you in an upcoming post.

Using social network analysis strategies brought my attention to how information and resources are transmitted through developing musicians’ social networks.  Analyzing how musicians access and use musically-significant resources turned out to be a major focus of my study, so I’ll be discussing this idea in detail in a future post.  I also found that chance, human agency, and social structure all contribute to shaping musical development in important ways, so I’ll be talking more about these concepts as well.

I find it embarrassing to admit that I have spent three years of my life working on this dissertation.  Granted, I’ve accomplished a few other things during that time, but if I had known at the outset that it was going to take me so long, I probably would have chosen a simpler topic.  However, I suppose it’s a good thing I was so naive, because despite my frustration with having spent so much time on this project, I truly find the subject fascinating and believe I have contributed meaningfully to the field of music education.  More importantly, I’ve learned some very worthwhile life lessons that have already influenced my development in significant ways.  When I think about it in those terms, I have no regrets about having spent so much time and energy on this study, because I now have a much clearer understanding of who I am, why I am the way I am, and how I can become the person I want to be.  So I look forward to telling you more about that in the near future.

In my next post, I plan to talk about my study design.  In other words, I’ll tell you how I collected and analyzed my data.  This includes a very cool technique for making a graphic representation of your own social network, which you may actually want to try at home (it’s surprisingly fun).  Next, I’ll talk about how resources flow through social networks and what that means for musical development and other types of development.  Following that, I plan to discuss how chance, agency, and social structure shape development.  After that, I’ll describe my theory of how developmental trajectories in music are constructed.  In that post, I’ll also present my new definition of the term musical development, because believe it or not, music education researchers have yet to agree on a definition.  And if I’m not completely sick of talking about my dissertation by that point, I might write one final dissertation-related post about how my research can inform the work of music teachers and learners.  Of course, I reserve the right to completely change this plan if I want to.

So until next time (when I’ll introduce my study design), take care and happy learning!


The Postpartum Experience

Childbirth was challenging, but learning to take care of my baby during those first few weeks was much, much harder.  It would have been difficult even if I’d been in optimal physical condition, but my body was quite roughed up from giving birth.  I was so tired that I literally couldn’t speak coherently for days, and walking was a struggle for weeks.  If I hadn’t had Jeff around to help me, I don’t know how I would have managed.  Jeff did all the household chores, including preparing meals, cleaning, running errands, and walking the dog.  I was constantly asking him to fetch me things, and I definitely couldn’t have carried Dax’s car seat to and from the car to take him to his first two appointments with the pediatrician.

The learning curve for new parents is incredibly steep.  I’ve learned so much about so many different things in these past few months that I cannot possibly share them all with you here.  Therefore, I’ll limit myself to discussing the most important thing I have learned, which is that our government needs to do more to support the parents of newborn children.  Yes, this blog post is going to be political.  Sorry about that.

New parents need help!  I knew that those first few weeks or months with a newborn would be challenging, but I had no idea how challenging.  I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you can completely understand until you’ve done it yourself, which is why it’s such a problem that most of our policy makers are wealthy, older men!  Even if they have children, the majority could probably afford to pay for help when their children were born and/or they had spouses who could stay at home.  Most people can’t do that.  Most people have to go to work every day to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

According to the Huffington Post, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not mandate paid maternity leave for mothers of newborns.  Many countries do far more than that for new parents.  The Social Security programs in Norway and Sweden, for example, give over a year of paid leave that can be shared between the mother and father.  There’s plenty of evidence showing that more generous parental leave policies lead to positive outcomes for children that probably save taxpayers money in the long run.  If you don’t believe me, look it up.  Sorry, but now that I’m a parent, I don’t have time to search around for articles to cite in my blog posts, especially when I am certain that what I am saying is true.

I now know that just breastfeeding is a full-time job, and I can totally see how it’s not doable for many mothers in the United States.  Considering that babies are typically healthiest when they (1) are exclusively breastfed for 6 months, and (2) have the opportunity to develop a secure attachment to their primary caregivers, it seems obvious to me that as a society we should do more to support that.

In many ways, I am lucky; I have a flexible job and a husband who can support me both financially and emotionally.  But money is tight.  We’re hardly living the life of luxury.  And as someone who works multiple jobs, all of which pay by the hour, I didn’t get any paid maternity leave at all.  If it weren’t for Jeff, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take any time off from work, though I definitely needed to take time off for the sake of both my physical and mental health.

I LOVE being a mom so far.  Even at three in the morning, I’m delighted to spend time with my baby.  However, I find it stressful to be a mom, teacher, doctoral student, and wife all at the same time.  (Not to mention my other informal or optional roles, such as runner, reader, blogger, and “informed” citizen).  Fortunately, I won’t be a doctoral student for much longer, but even without that obligation, I have doubts about my ability to balance the rest of life with motherhood.  I feel like I’m not particularly good at anything when I’m trying to do everything all at the same time.

I don’t know how single mothers, low income families, and mothers who, for whatever reason, need to go back to work right away (especially if they have physically taxing jobs) can manage.  When you think about it, it makes sense why some parents go crazy and do horrible things like shake their babies.  To prevent that sort of thing from happening, we, as a society, should really do more to support families.  If that means higher taxes, so be it.  It would be money well spent, in my opinion.

And I’ll leave you with that for today.  I promise that my next post won’t be at all political.  Until then, happy learning!