Author Archives: Anna Bull

About Anna Bull

Anna is a a PhD candidate in the sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London, looking at cultural reproduction of classical music in elite youth music groups, incorporating themes of class, embodiment, and Bourdieusian ideas of practice.

The case of the ‘disappearing body’: habitus shift and bodily practice

In Shawn Lindsay’s 1996 article ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’, the author describes his (her?) process of learning drumming in preparation for doing anthropological fieldwork.  Drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, Lindsay explores the idea of ‘practice as a mode of bodily understanding’, prefiguring a recent resurgence of interest in habit as social and embodied practice (see Body and Society journal’s recent special issue on habit) by exploring repetition and habit in learning a musical skill.

The main contention Lindsay raises is that ‘the habitus must be envisaged as possessing the capacity for generating practices which are not in themselves “inherent in the particular conditions of its production” (Bourdieu:1990, 55) but are actually transformative of those conditions'(p200).  (A nice link with our ‘discourses of transformation’ discussion last month – see previous blog post).  Lindsay notes that learning a new skill – in this case drumming – ‘presents a threat to the habitus in that it entails a reworking and a revitalising of the body’s corporeal schema (Merleau-Ponty 1962:142)’ (p202).  In his drumming practice, the learning of a complex rhythm brought about a ‘habitus shift’ which altered his perception of the timing of this particular beat from hearing 6/8 time to hearing hemiola time, i.e. two against three.  This shift occurred while drumming with his teacher and another student, in a circle, and to his surprise, it was accompanied by a visualisation of the construction of the rhythm between the three drummers, in the form of a floating triangle.

Our discussion in our September meeting circled around this idea of whether bodily practice can transform habitus.  This idea of transformation focused on the shift that Lindsay describes between the moment of not being able to do something and then being able to do it; and also around the embodied capacity which Lindsay describes acquiring, that of a particular kind of active relaxation.  He describes how ‘an essential element of feeling a rhythm is being able to relax your entire body’ which doesn’t mean ‘a lack of energy’ (p208), but ‘cultivating a body that is actively, habitually relaxed.  Achieving a state of habitual relaxation constitutes a rearrangement of the habitus’, as this experience can be taken into other areas of one’s life (p209).

We had some questions around whether this shift does indeed constitute a moment of potential rupture in the habitus, with concomitant generative capabilities, or whether it is just a moment of a new, more energetic reproduction of the habitus.  If there is indeed a transformation, what kinds of newness take place?  And do we have any control over this transformation?  Certain disciplines such as learning a musical practice, or engaging in still and silent listening, can facilitate new experiences, or the kind of shift that Lindsay describes, but what then does this shifting enable?  My own critique was that before learning a new practice from a different culture, it is necessary to possess a habitus wherein the learning of new skills from other cultures is something that is possible and imaginable for you – something which as Skeggs (2003) notes, can be read as an attribute of a middle class self, drawing on a history of appropriating the culture of others.

Despite one very avid defender of the concept of habitus in the group, as well as various newly-minted Bourdieusians, I was not convinced by this idea of the habitus shift through bodily practice, even though I found it hugely exciting to think about as a possibility.  This is partly because it encourages (and draws on) an even looser conceptualisation of the habitus which is already a somewhat blurry concept.  But despite this, what Lindsay describes is interesting in its own right in relation to embodied practice and affective transmission (see Blackman:2012).  Lindsay describes the ‘disappearance of the body in drumming’ (p202) ‘in reaching out to grasp a rhythm not of its own making […] my body had become invisible to me […] It surpassed itself, becoming for a moment ‘co-extensive with the world’ (Sartre: 1956, 420)’ (p201).  We were all fascinated by this account of the ‘disappearing body’ and its implications for ideas of craftsmanship as well as music pedagogies.  There emerged through this ‘disappearing body’ a different mode of sociality which was in itself generative, regardless of whether it might allow lasting transformation of ‘structuring structures’.  And is it really true that if you persist at drumming, ‘the body’s awkward parts will soon disappear’?  I live in hope.

The article ends with a call for ethnographers to learn the basic skills ‘required to engage in new patterns of living’ such as how to use ‘the hoe, the drum, the hatchet, the water jar’ (p211).  This is one place where ethnomusicologists have the upper hand, as learning the musical practice of our research sites is one of the key unifying elements of the discipline.   But as was noted in our discussion, how to write about this practice – particularly how to describe the experience of ‘flow’ or the ‘disappearing body’ – is something we all grapple with, and this article provided a fascinating example of capturing embodied musical experience in prose.


Blackman, L., 2012. Immaterial bodies: affect, embodiment, mediation, Theory, culture & society. SAGE, London.

Lindsay, S. (1996) ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’ in M. Jackson (ed.) Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press); 196-212

Skeggs, B., 2003. Class, self, culture, 1st ed. Routledge.


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The social impact of the arts: what do discourses of transformation do?

For our August discussion group, we read excerpts from Eleanora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett’s 2010 book The Social Impact of the Arts: an intellectual history (introduction, chapter four on Personal Wellbeing, conclusion).  This was quite a different type of reading to our usual ethnomusicological fare, chosen by Jonathan to link into current discussions of what is somewhat vaguely termed ‘cultural value’.

The introduction, which we ended up focusing on in our discussion, sets out the problem of finding a language beyond economic value in which to discuss the role of the arts in society: the question of intrinsic or instrumental value.  Unfortunately for our purposes as ethnomusicologists, the book limits itself to discussing drama, literature and theatre, but as the broader debate around cultural value encompasses music, we felt justified in extending the ideas discussed to music as well.  Belfiore and Bennett identify two narratives related to cultural value: a narrative of transformation in which arts ‘change lives or define identity’ (p4), and a narrative of ‘beleaguerment’ or crisis which suggests that ‘the arts are undervalued and in serious danger of collapse’.  They suggest that examining the intellectual history of ideas of value in the arts can help make sense of current debates.  Continue reading

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Feld’s back in the field

How do we write ethnomusicology and what counts as scholarly work in our field? Feld’s 2012 book, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, (of which we read the introduction and first chapter) sent us chasing these questions in our discussions of the introduction and first chapter at the May EDG (ethnomusicology discussion group) meeting. I’ll attempt to recapture some of the flavour of our discussion in this blog post, which I hope will be the first of a series which will follow on from our monthly discussions which take place at the Institute of Education bar.


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Book review: Musicians from a Different Shore – Mari Yoshihara

Working in a relatively under-researched field – cultural ethnographic approaches to classical music – has its pluses and its minuses. One of the minuses is the lack of studies to stimulate my own ideas and help clarify the important questions in the field. So I was disproportionately excited to hear from a colleague about a recent ethnography in this area which seems to be relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic – Mari Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore (Temple University Press, 2007), a study of Asian American classical musicians.

Yoshihara, as she explains in the autobiographical introduction, is a Japanese American academic who works on American Orientalism. She learned piano intensively as a child and teenager but let go of her pianist identity as she moved into academia. This book is therefore in part a revisiting of that earlier self, an exploration she ties in gracefully with the broader themes of the book. She defines Asian American musicians as immigrants from East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China) to the US, or Asian Americans who grew up in the US. Her starting point is the discourses about Asians as a ‘model minority’ in the US for their overrepresentation in higher education and many professional fields, which coexist alongside discourses about Asian musicians as being ‘automatons’ who have amazing technical skills but play like robots. She contrasts these ideas with other ways that Asians are positioned in the classical music world in the US – for example, they are under-represented in management and positions of power – taking this as an indication that being Asian counts as a ‘racial marker’ for these musicians. Interestingly, this goes against her informants’ own views that being Asian doesn’t make any difference to them as musicians… of which more later.

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Welcome to the new-look EDG blog!

Welcome to our re-vamped blog!  I hope you like it.  The re-browning, I mean, re-branding, of the page is to prepare us for the influx of posts that are going to follow.

We are going to have several themes running over the next few months: first, a series on fieldwork, including discussions of access, and people’s reflections on their experience.  Also, we’re going to have regular posts on What We’re Reading, which I will kick-start with a review of Mari Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore. Please feel free to post summaries, reviews, or discussions of what you’re currently reading, whether it’s for the EDG reading group or your own reading.

Finally, I’m hoping that some of you who have sent me photos to use in the blog will also take the opportunity to write about them.  In Paul Gilroy’s chapter in The Auditory Cultures Reader (2004, eds Bull and Back) he discusses a photo of a crowd listening to reggae in London in 1974.  The photo doesn’t show any music or musicians – just the faces of the crowd who are mostly listening intently, some frowning, some looking down.  Gilroy writes ‘this was cultural work that incorporated defensive and affirmative elements: working over and working through the memories of slavery and colonialism, past sufferings and contemporary resistances, so that they could provide resources for interpreting the present and imagining a better future for blacks and for the whole world’ (2004:388).  It’s a beautiful passage, and it’s worth reading all of it, but maybe this snippet will inspire you to look at your fieldwork photos and think about the ‘cultural work’ that is occurring in them.

And finally, seeing this is a music-themed blog, maybe we should have some music in it – go ahead and add clips or links to some of the music you’re studying.

Happy reading/listening/looking!


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