What We Talked About At ISA 2012: How Music Brings Meaning to Politics

At this year’s ISA conference, I presented on the panel ‘The Social Technologies of Protest’, with George Lawson, Eric Selbin, Robbie Shilliam and our discussant Patrick Jackson. The full text of the draft paper is available here. Thanks go to the panel and audience for some fascinating questions and discussions.

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move

–          ­‘Sir Duke’, Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Music is an old and effective technology of politics. This was highly visible in both the recent uprisings and the attempts at counter-revolution; whilst from the beginning Tunisian activists sang their national anthem in the street in anti-regime protest, Assad blasted the Syrian anthem into the cities as a reminder of his position. Rappers and older musicians shared platforms in Tahrir Square, and DJs parodically remixed Gaddafi’s final public speeches into technotronic nonsense. Whilst not all political music is sung of course, songs and the act of singing are particularly powerful in political situations as means and symbols of mobilisation and unification.  Moreover, songs tend to linger in the brain.

But there are at least two ways of thinking about the relationship between politics and music. The question which is perhaps most often asked and answered is: how, when and where is music political? So, why did the Tunisian protesters sing the national anthem in front of the courthouse, how did music support the anti-apartheid struggle, and why did the Haitian revolutionaries sing the Marseillaise? How did the musical character of these expressions facilitate a particular kind of political act? Lots of excellent writers, both scholarly and otherwise, have turned their attentions to the nature of political music, and especially protest music, in a variety of times and places.

However, the question that I want to focus on mainly here though is slightly different: how, when and where is politics musical? This question was stimulated by the general observation that when we try to make sense of politics, we often use metaphors related to music. A common phrase is that a political statement or value ‘struck a chord’ with an audience, or that protesters are ‘banging a drum’. Politicians may or may not be ‘in tune’ with publics, and relations may be ‘harmonious’ or not. Coups will be ‘orchestrated’.

Perhaps surprisingly, in moving from vernacular to scholarly modes of understanding politics, the metaphors of music are no less important. In fact, in some cases they seem to be more important. The genre-defining work of the historical sociologist Charles Tilly in the study of contentious politics is a revealing and fascinating case in point.

Tilly’s work on contentious politics seeks to explain the emergence and occurences of episodes of contention – meaning collective, visible claim-making directed against political authority (see Tahrir Square above). Throughout his body of work, from 1978 up to his last publications in 2010, Tilly employs two crucial analytic metaphors to help him make sense of this politics – ‘repertoires’ and ‘performances’. In arguing that there are particular ‘repertoires’ of contention, Tilly argues that the ways in which people make contentious claims is by drawing on a limited set of known actions, such as marches, strikes and riots, which form a ‘repertoire’. These repertoires evolve alongside social structures and regimes; Tilly’s detailed work about Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries argues that industrialisation and ‘modern’ forms of national government coincide with substantial changes to the repertoire (e.g. from parochial to national targets, from ad hoc contention to organised strikes etc). Tilly sees this as the ‘invention’ of the social movement in Britain. For Tilly, each instance of claim-making is also a ‘performance’ from the ‘repertoire’, involving a performer, an occasion and an audience.  Whilst Tilly had been prinicipally concerned with tracing the relationship between particular repertoires and regimes, in his later work, Tilly sought to systematise the recording of the elements of the performance as well. He also argues that within the context defined by the repertoire and the performance, people ‘improvise’ like jazz musicians or street artists.

As his close collaborator Sidney Tarrow notes, these metaphors are fundamental to establishing the important contributions of Tilly’s work within historical sociology as a broader intervention in social theory. The first is in the establishment of what Tilly and his co-workers term a ‘relational’ ontology of the social world – that is, a move towards thinking about social entities as constituted by their relations with one another and processes of social change, rather than as ontologically separate and static beings. The ideas of the ‘repertoire’ and ‘performance’ do this because they emphasise the co-location and co-constitution of political acts, performers and contexts. Second, and relatedly, these metaphors are intended to allow for the emergence of a non-deterministic mid-level social theory in which elements of given social structure such as culture and history interact with human agency. Thus the performer can improvise, but only within the parameters of the repertoire. Third, Tilly argues that the ideas of the ‘repertoire’ and ‘performance’ allow the analyst the necessary analytic distance from the phenomena under consideration to make claims which are causally coherent on their own terms, and not dependent on the terms of the participants. Tilly notes that this is crucial if social theory is to be primarily explanatory rather than interpretive. Tarrow notes that one of Tilly’s achievements in logging ‘performances’ is to offer grounds for ‘systematic qualitative inquiry’ in a way that would permit explanatory claims to be made.

In short, these metaphors are doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the ‘social scientific’ contributions of Tilly’s work. Neither are they at all unsuccessful; the popularity of Tilly and the massive uptake of this framework amongst students of contentious politics across different disciplines seems to indicate that people find them convincing. But we still need to understand why it is that these musical (and theatrical) metaphors are helping us make sense of the political world, and what else this can tell us.

Metaphors we think by

George Lakoff has famously argued that metaphors are modes of thought, which allow us to make sense of one domain by mapping another onto it with which we are more familiar. As such they are not communicative flourishes but central to the possibility of cognition and contemplation. For example, we often think of time (something more abstract) in spatial terms (something more tangible), e.g. time is running out, I am squeezed for time, the year ahead. Lakoff argues metaphors allow us to think when a) there are systematic correspondences between the source domain for the metaphor and the target domain, b) that reasoning and behaviour can be understood through the metaphor, and c) we can extend the metaphor to understand new elements of the target domain.

The key questions are, then, how should we understand these ‘systematic correspondences’ between music (the source domain) and contentious politics (the target domain), and how do/can they help us understand the latter? Although Tilly is aware that ‘we confront a metaphor’, he does not ultimately pursue the significance of this metaphorical explanation.

To cut to the chase of a longer and more complex response, my sense is that we have a much more sophisticated, intuitive and sensitive understanding of music as a field of purposeful and creative relational human activity than we do of contentious politics. There has been a tendency, above all in attempts to ‘scientise’ the explanation of political behaviour and agency as rational or predictable responses to particular circumstances. Yet, where these modes of explanation run into walls, we see musical metaphors take over to make sense of what is happening in a more or less accessible way.

Importantly for Tilly, although he doesn’t really address this, they allow him to begin to make sense of practices of creativity and mimesis in politics through the metaphor of jazz improvisation. As such, this seems a neat way to mediate – and indeed avoid – some of the problems associated with debates about the place of agency and structure in the conduct of political action. For Tilly, it allows him to include ‘culture’ and ‘history’ as descriptive reference points without giving them particular explanatory weight – it allows him to treat the musical metaphor as a mapping exercise.

But, as we see in Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, this is not the only way to understand the politics in jazz improvisation – indeed the metaphor is much richer. In his reading, we can understand this improvisation as enacting the unsteadiness of the relationship between the performer and the structures presented by the repertoire. Yet this repertoire is not understood as a space which is necessarily limited by various regimes, but also deliberately cultivated as a space for critical consciousness linking past and future players and audiences. Here the content and the history of the repertoire are perhaps not best understood as strategic responses but as the ways in which players ground themselves in forms of shared identity, whilst simultaneously innovating around and re-articulating its content and meaning.

As noted above, good metaphors also let you think in new ways about your area of interest. Yet, here we only scratch the surface of the ways in which music can help us to think about the world. Tilly himself played with the idea of history as having different ‘rhythms’ – shorter, quicker ones in which human lives were lived, and longer, slower ones in which grand processes of social change took place. Edward Said however famously suggested that we could also read histories ‘contrapuntally’ in the musical sense. In counterpoint, different melodies run simultaneously but interweave and interact to produce the overall sound.  Said’s musical metaphor for history seems to improve upon Tilly’s insofar as it captures the possibilities of plurality and relationality rather better.

We can think of the history of the strike as an example from contentious politics. For Tilly, the strike is intimately linked to processes of industrialisation, and is therefore ‘born’ with the social movement in Britain in the nineteenth century. These then spread in a modular way to different parts of the world as they are influenced by spreading industrialisation. On Tilly’s reading, we might see the mass strikes or hartals in India in 1919 as the spread of a particular repertoire of contention in response to a European regime. However, if we read the Indian hartal contrapuntally, it is notable that organised shut-downs as protests featuring prayer and fasting were occurring more than two hundred years before this, albeit on a smaller scale. Figures like Gandhi can be understood as creatively and consciously linking different kinds of struggles and traditions in the pursuit of political goals. Thinking of history in terms of a kind of contrapuntal music gives us a way to grasp the possibilities of historical similarity without sameness, of relationality without repetition, of autonomy without irrelevance.

Other modes of sense-making

There is clearly much more to say, and to think about, in terms of understanding the linkages between music and politics. John Street’s book, Kevin Dunn‘s article and Naeem Inayatullah and Phil Weinrobe’s conference paper were particularly interesting and useful as starting points for me. But I cannot map out this important material here. Instead, to close, I will suggest two concepts which might be helpful from the world of music to help us think about the political.

One concept which remains underexplored in terms of music and politics, but is central to the usefulness of the metaphor, is the concept of ‘resonance’. For all kinds of commentators, the notion of ‘resonance’ is very important in talking about how political ideas and values affect people, or how and why people relate to political action.  But what does this word mean? In terms of its acoustic sense, resonance is used to describe what happens when particular natural frequencies (of which any object has many) are amplified via interaction with another object. This is interesting insofar as it relates largely to physical properties of the object; not all resonances are possible but variations are. Moreover, the production of sound via resonance is an inherently relational endeavour.  This might help us begin to think about how and why different political ideas ‘resonate’ at particular times through their interaction with actors’ physical situations, as well as their ideas.

Another notion which might be helpful  in thinking about politics is the notion of ‘appreciation’. When we think about music, we are alive to the idea that it is a fundamentally complex and expressive / communicative practice which requires us to listen to it carefully to make sense of it. We also understand it as a domain of pleasure and pain, and see the necessity of engaging emotionally to understand it as such. If the metaphor between music and politics holds to this extent also, we should be making sense of politics in a similarly sensitive way. Yet, so often, our engagements with the political world involve the more intellectually distant activities of observation and explanation rather than an engaged listening and appreciation.

Making sense of the world, then, can take many forms. Historical sociology, in which Charles Tilly has been a major figure, is but one mode of sense-making which seeks out what it sees as systematic regularities and attempts to connect them to others. Yet it seems to me that Tilly’s dependence on musical metaphors is neither incidental nor esoteric; rather it speaks to the ways in which political behaviour and structures are intimately connected and related to other forms of expressive human relations.

4 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA 2012: How Music Brings Meaning to Politics

  1. I could go for a panel on ‘resonance’ right about now. In its many different guises (a.k.a, fit, accessibility, congruence, match and even click), this concept thrives in political communication (e.g., Entman), poststructuralist IR (Hansen), Europeanization studies (Börzel and Risse) and elsewhere. Last week I was reading Josh Busby’s Moral Movements and Foreign Policy, and there “fit” appears as a key structural dynamics: all else equal, moral movements succeed/fail when their frames fit/misfit the dominant values of the target state. The influence on Tilly’s work on social movement theory is immense, and it is also reflected in the way resonance is used to connect ideas (contention, frames etc.) to meaningful behaviour (collective action, decision etc). In my reading, despite leaving the concept undertheorized, Tilly and his collaborators (I am thinking of the 2001 Dynamics of Contention book) wanted us to think about resonance as a causal mechanism, or at least a building block thereof. From this perspective, as a mechanism, resonance might be regarded book as environmental, cognitive and/or relational (all at once, too), which would turn it into a powerful tool for studying social and political contention (the aforementioned literatures demonstrate this potential, I would say). Whether Tilly et al provided a helpful definition of causal mechanisms or whether the language of mechanisms privileges explanation over interpretation are separate issues, but what they provide is a unique mode of social and political analysis that has already made a major impact on the study of politics.

    I also think you’re right about Tilly’s keenness for musical metaphors; if I recall his 2007 book correctly, he notes in multiple places that collective claim making is like jazz. He also talks about commedia dell’ arte, and says something how theatrical metaphors fail to convey that actors learn. So maybe there is somewhere in Tilly’s opus an engagement with systematic correspondences and other aspects of metaphorical analysis.


    • Thanks Srdjan – great comments. You are totally right that the use of ‘resonance’ or cognate metaphors is much wider in social theory, and I will certainly follow up on the Busby and any other literature that you spot on this. I suppose what I found interesting in the Tilly stuff as far as I read (and given the size of the opus, it’s likely I missed something) was precisely the relative under-theorisation of the metaphor – he’s totally clear about what correspondences he sees as important and how, but not really *why*, yet it is doing all this work for his model. In part I am being a little playful with the ‘science’ wars element of this and the extent to which there is a frequent deferral of the human dimensions of politics in pursuit of the grander narratives about modernity. I think the musical metaphors remind us that even our great works of social science rely very heavily on rather less ‘scientific’ intuitions about what it means to be a social actor, which should prompt at least more humility and reflection about these endeavours… But this is a long-standing provocation 🙂


  2. Meera,

    Two quick things: first, that conference paper with Phil Weinrobe you were kind to mention is a chapter in Marianne Franklin’s book “Resounding International Relations” (2005). Second, since I am not familiar with Tilly’s work, I want to push the discussion in a slightly different direction. You say that the question you want to ask is, “how, when and where is politics musical?” But I think this framing may undervalue the power of music. Allow me to pose the question that moves me more, “what does the musical world already understand about politics that we in IR may not?”

    Posing this question is the purpose of my chapter with Phil. And the answers we probe have to do with aesthetic principles and musical form. Specifically, what do the various aesthetic ideals, forms of aesthetic musical construction, and musical participation/interaction tell us about possible politics. This way of framing the question makes it difficult for we IR types to assimilate music into our own domain – which is what we are best at and most likely to do. But such an assimilation really deprives us music’s richer legacy – or so I am led to believe.

    Let me give you an example from a different domain. I once wrote a paper titled “Bumpy Space: Imperialism and Resistance in Star Trek: The Next Generation,” (in Jutta Weldes book, To Seek Out New Worlds (2003). I still like that paper, but it has one crucial flaw – it textualizes a visual medium. I say almost nothing about camera angles, lighting, editing, and how the visual, textual, narrative, and musical all come together as film. It is as if I am saying, “Well, I don’t care about the visual elements of this show. I am going to write only about its ideas.”

    So also with music. Moving into these other domains requires us, it seems to me, to make some attempt to learn their medium. I don’t have those skills. But I am trying to learn how these media work.


    • Hi Naeem,

      I really loved the paper – I knew it had come out as a book chapter but couldn’t access it when writing, so wasn’t sure how much it was different in the edit. But I look forward to looking at the whole Franklin volume as and when I get to do more writing on this (and the only copy in the library is not checked out…).

      Re. the post / paper – I have been quite conservative in terms of looking at Tilly and the repertoires thing as a jump-off point for imagining the possible relationships between music and politics. Partly this is as a provocation: Tilly is in the firmament of historical sociologists etc so it is interesting that he needs these metaphors.

      But, as noted in reading your paper and thinking more widely, you are right that the soundscape discloses a much richer set of things than simply a translation of things we are already looking at or interested in which are already recognised as ‘political’. I tried to elaborate a bit on this in the panel, but I have really only scratched the surface in thinking about this broader field of possibilities. Lots of really good comments on this from the floor in the Q&A, especially from Matt Davies and a few others.

      One thing which struck me as possibly interesting, which was never developed in the paper or elsewhere, is the internal relationality of melodies. That is to say, you identify a tune most readily by the intervals between the notes rather than the pitch of the notes themselves (unless you are exceptionally tuned into pitch). For me this seemed interesting in terms of thinking about how political ideas move and change in terms of establishing internal relations between peoples and entitlements. But just an idea for now – needs working out…


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