Theorising Vulnerability and Resilience in Relation to Young People’s Music-Making Practices

This is the first of three blog posts by PhD candidates in youth sociology who were selected to present their research to a panel as part of a Postgraduate Workshop on the 29th November, following the TASA Annual Conference. This workshop was supported by funding from TASA.

By Michael Hartup, PhD candidate, University of Western Sydney and the Young and Well CRC
m.hartup@uws.edu.au

Youth music-making initiatives are commonly founded on a linear, reductive model that suggests that by engaging in creative music practices vulnerable young people can develop resilience. This vulnerability-creativity-resilience model is built upon the notion that through musical creativity (often aided by the inclusion of technology), young people are provided with a new language through which they can express themselves.

My PhD research is about taking that model, and seeing how it operates on the ground, in the real lived experiences of young people engaged in music-making practices. In particular, the research sets out to explore the ways in which marginalised or vulnerable young people engage in technology based music-making practices to navigate personal story and to understand the impacts this process has on resilience. In doing this, the research will develop relevant socio-cultural conceptualisations of vulnerability and resilience specific to young people engaged in music-making practices.

In order to address this, I needed to seek out and understand the lived experiences of young people engaged in the practice itself.

To do this, I divided my fieldwork into two stages. The first stage involved me speaking to thirteen young people who identified as being from a marginalised population and were engaged in music-making. The interview covered three key areas:
– The participant’s music history (what they grew up listening to compared to now, who influenced those tastes, any formal or informal music training),
– The participant’s music-making practice (included a detailed discussion about their practice and what they write about in their music)
– The participant’s engagement with technology (sharing music online, streaming and download statistics of their own music, their use of social media and other digital communication)

Stage one also involved interviews with two youth music workshop facilitators. In these we spoke about the issues they faced in their workplace, and their own understandings of the terms ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ within the context of their work.

Stage two of the fieldwork involved conducting a series of three follow up interviews each with five of the thirteen young people who participated in stage one. The first interview was designed to gain a bit more knowledge about some of the key findings that came through in the stage one interviews. The second interview involved sitting down with the young person in their music-making space and speaking about their practice and included a ‘music-making walkthrough’ where the young person ran me through their song-writing practice. The final interview dealt with the young person’s idea of a music community and their local scene where discussion covered the connections they’ve made through music, how they use technology to stay connected, and key influential moments they’ve experienced as part of their music community.

In addition to these interviews, I have conducted a textual analysis on the young person’s music, their public social media profiles and their music-distribution profiles.

***

As I near the end of my fieldwork, I’m beginning to uncover various notions of how both vulnerability and resilience interplay with young people’s music-making practices.

With regards to vulnerability, some young people used music-making to write directly about something quite personal. Julia for instance wrote about her relationship with her grandpa and, indirectly, about her family’s history of mental illness. Another instead chose the work of a cult novel, using the protagonist in that book as the main character in their song. The participant identified with this character and used her story to explore his own.

Another on the other hand, uses music-making essentially to promote positivity and aspire to something more.

“…I want people to listen to my music and think in a different way, to see things through my perspective. Like, from how I grew up to how I am now that, you know, you ain’t gotta be out there committing them crimes you know. That, that’s what I want to talk about.”

In contrast to what I had originally hypothesised, the young people I worked with drew less meaning from the process of writing their music. They instead drew meaning from releasing their music, either in a recorded format or in a live setting. The connections they then made once their music was out there went some way in changing participants’ own understandings of themselves.

These connections relate strongly with the concept of ‘social resiliency’, a new way of conceptualising resilience, grounded in a more fluid and evolving understanding (Bolzan and Gale 2011, 2013). As opposed to a traditional, individualised form of resilience, social resilience acknowledges and encourages new ways of accessing already existing social structures.

In relation to the young person’s music-making practice technology acts as an accompaniment to their practice as opposed to playing a major pivotal role. Whilst there were some participants who accessed technology, and in particular social media much more than other participants, their reflections on why this was did not fall into the romanticised positivist literature that suggests that technology acts as a great enabler. It is simply viewed as another way of communicating.

Interestingly, elements of the ‘research as intervention’ (Wright 2011) approach have also been useful in how I’m looking at my data. By conducting the interviews with these young people, I inadvertently provided them with an opportunity to actually discuss their practice for the first time. Perhaps the most common response to questions about why music-making works for them as a form of creative expression was first an acknowledgment that it does but then admitting that they are unable to articulate the reasons as to why. This phenomena was most pronounced in the responses from a young person who I spoke to in stage one of the research. After emailing the participant to thank him for participating, he responded that it “really made me think about what I do on an unconscious level.”

Other participants have responded in similar ways. When I really try and dig deeper with the participant so that we can get to a point where they may be able to articulate the reasons why music-making plays such a specific role, the closest I think I got was another participant Julia suggesting that something spiritual happens when she’s in that moment.

On the ground, young people’s engagement with music-making does not follow that linear model the literature suggests. For these young people, being engaged in the practice of music-making holds great meaning. Whilst the process does, in some instances, allow the young person to document how they feel, the ways in which this is done is not just via the process of song writing however. The whole process of music-making, from the inception of the idea, the writing of the actual song, to the social structures that form during the song-writing process and once the process has finished all hold different meanings for each young person, thus complicating the rigid vulnerability-creativity-resilience model that the literature suggests.

***

With regards to the questions I brought to the workshop, all stemmed from my recent attempts at unpacking what my findings actually mean and how I can develop a consistent narrative argument that links these findings together. In particular, in terms of my case study work, presenting these young people’s stories in a way that honours and places value in the lived experience of these young people is paramount. Therefore, whether to present each young person’s story as an individual chapter or group their stories within chapters according to themes was another major question.

There is also the new problem of how to use data presented via the participants online public profiles within any publications. In order to ensure that participants’ stories and identities remain pseudonymous, how then do you present online data that is instantly searchable meaning that participants may then be identifiable?

More broadly, there is a tension in how I approach the critique I am running with in my work. The interrogation of both ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ and how they are conceptualised is central to my overall argument. How to approach this interrogation and whether to use the lived experience of my participants to re-conceptualise the terms or simply to develop up new, more effective terms is a question that really dictates where I can take this research.

***

Participating in the workshop allowed me to start developing answers to the questions I had. The suggestions varied from quite practical advice to broader discussion as to how to construct my argument. I was provided with practical skills as to how to really unpack the significance or particular ideas, as well as broader suggestions that addressed the ‘where to from here’ question.

The most rewarding aspect of presenting my research at the workshop was the fact that the advice and suggestions were being given from those external to my work. It is so easy to get bogged down in the particulars of your research, and often, even if you do actively try, it is difficult to take a step back and attempt to reassess. Through participating in this workshop, I was able to receive feedback that hadn’t been tainted by some of the frustration that stems from being so involved in the project. The feedback helped me to re-imagine some of my work, and has helped me develop a more invigorated approach.

Through this process, I am now beginning to really understand how the concepts of vulnerability and resilience operate in my work, and how the data allows me to consider my critique of the terms in new and effective ways. With regards to the question around presenting data gathered from my textual analysis, changing key words of the data was suggested to ensure that the data was not then searchable. In terms of my hesitation as to how to present these young people’s stories, the realisation that it is something that will come later on put me at ease.

Overall, I think participating in the workshop gave me confidence that I was on the right track. It was incredibly rewarding to have some of the leading sociology of young people scholars in Australia confirm that my work was on the way to developing new and exciting knowledge.

References.
Bolzan, N & Gale, F 2011, ‘Expect The Unexpected’, Child Indicators Research, vol 4, pp. 269-281
Bolzan, N & Gale, F 2013, ‘Social Resilience: Challenging Neo-colonial Thinking and Practices Around ‘Risk’’, Journal of Youth Studies, vol 16, no 2, pp. 257-271.
Wright, M 2011, ‘Research as Intervention: Engaging Silenced Voices’, ALAR: Action Learning and Action Research Journal, vol 17, no 2, pp. 25-46.

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About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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