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!