Friday, January 21, 2011

The Meaning of Music in Anthropology News

In the aftermath of #aaafail, there is an opportunity to take a more intentional approach to understanding the ways in which our work as anthropologists interconnects with the broader anthropological community. To that end, I was really struck by a fascinating commentary on the Meaning of Music in this month's Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the AAA. Given my research interests, I was especially interested in Jerusha Achterberg and Anthony Pierce's essay on the Convergence of Music and Biological Anthropology Methodologies. These collaborators, one an biological anthropologist and epidemiologist and the other a musician, are interested in "using aural depictions as an alternative means of communicating data." Complex sound instead of bar charts? A fascinating premise, the pair realized that there were large intervening gulfs not only in their expertise, but more frustratingly, in the language they use to explain foundational concepts of their specific research areas. Their candid reflection on where their collaboration is most challenged is interesting and relevant to all of us engaged in cross-disciplinary work:
"Coming from two different backgrounds, we quickly realized the importance of establishing shared conversational space. Achieving that space has been - and remains - incredibly hard to find and maintain....The single greatest challenge is finding meaningful terminology that we can each recognize and utilize, while effectively communicating with our respective discipline."
This rings very true to me in light of recent collaborations with OB/GYN clinicians whose language, methodological focus, and philosophy of risk and disease are very different from mine as an evolutionarily-informed biological anthropologist.

Another piece in the series that piqued my interest is Mothers, Children, and Maternal-Child Health in Image and Song, by Jesse Samba Wheeler. Wheeler works in Malawi and has been participating in the production of a documentary, Delivering Malawi, "about health, community practices and international aid, with a focus on maternal-child health." During the filmmaking process, Wheeler recorded a wonderful song called Joyce na NyaMoyo, which is sung at mobile clinics. It is song about the need for prenatal care, and includes lines such as "We will never neglect antenatal again, because our friends have babies" and "Women and men, let us encourage each other to go for antenatal care."

Check out this issue of AN and see which essays resonate most strongly for you or introduce you to a new way of thinking.


  1. Hmm...What if you translated your data and results into music, and it turned out to sound exactly like some famous composition? Spooky potential!

  2. The academic equivalent of George Harrison "subliminally" plagiarizing the Shirelles, except way more cross-modal. Trippy....