Response to New York Times and Tunstall reviews

Two more reviews and an article about my book came out over the last week. The Times article was a good, solid overview, and the two journalists who wrote it clearly got the point, so not much to say about that (it’s behind a paywall, unfortunately, so no link).

So here I’m going to focus on the two reviews: one by James Oestreich for the New York Times, and the other by leading Sistema advocate Tricia Tunstall for Classical Music magazine. I wrote an off-the-cuff reply to the latter online, which appears below the article, and will be publishing a more considered response in the physical edition early next year, so I won’t say much about it here. But it seems to make sense to discuss these two reviews together, as they have much in common: neither author knows very much about El Sistema or Venezuela; neither liked my book, yet neither could actually find much of substance to say against it; and neither is a scholar, yet both questioned my scholarly method.

Oestreich’s review is curious. When I skim-read it through at first, I thought it was very negative. When I read it again more carefully, I realized that it is very negative – but in tone rather than content. He challenges almost none of the book’s substance, and focuses instead on questions of style and method. He found the book oppressive and repetitive – well, that’s a shame, though hardly issues of great importance in a work of critical scholarship, and other readers (academics) have described the book as gripping. But with only a couple of exceptions, he doesn’t dispute my findings; it’s just that the tone of his review gives the opposite impression.

Take the following:

Mr. Baker’s methods are disturbing in other ways, too, including what he calls his “anonymization of research informants.” His blanket grant of anonymity to the “dozens of musicians, cultural officials and journalists” he interviewed in Venezuela, though unfortunate, is understandable, presumably given to protect them and their careers against Abreu-instigated reprisals, a real threat, to judge from Mr. Baker’s evidence and others’. But it too easily expands to include, for example, “a North American music educator who observed members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra leading workshops in the United States.”

Now, if we remove the grumpy tenor, we see that he accepts the need to anonymize informants in Venezuela, indeed he calls reprisals from Abreu “a real threat.” So despite his use of the dramatic word “disturbing,” his quibble is actually a very minor one (and one that is easily addressed: (a) the blanket anonymization of all informants is quite common practice in the social sciences, particularly in studies of education; (b) the person in question worked for a Sistema-inspired program, so it would hardly have been ethical for me to reveal their name in conjunction with a criticism of the SBYO.)

With regard to my decision not to try to interview Abreu, Oestreich writes:

Such an expedient certainly makes a writer’s life easier, but it also raises elemental questions of fairness, denying the subject of serious accusations a chance to respond. If nothing else, perhaps Mr. Baker could have sorted out with Mr. Abreu the issue of a financial pyramid scheme whose collapse “was blamed on a relative of Abreu.”

 “No charges were made against Abreu himself, and there is no evidence that he was involved,” Mr. Baker is quick to add, but “suspicions were aroused, and rumors have continued to circulate to this day.” This is hardly scholarly or even journalistic rigor.

Now, it’s laughable for Oestreich to suggest that I should have marched into the office of the most powerful cultural figure in Venezuela, half way through a research project on his institution, and asked: “so, let’s talk about the financial scandal that engulfed your family. Who was actually responsible?” According to the Venezuelan journalist Rafael Rivero, and as detailed in my book, Abreu unleashed vicious criticism and threats against the exiled Argentinean theater director and music critic Gustavo Tambascio for writing a bad review of a concert. And I’m supposed to have interrogated Abreu about corruption? Every Sistema door would have been closed to me the next day.

In reality, my decision not to pursue an interview with Abreu was an easy one to make, though not for the reasons Oestreich suggests. My research project was always designed to focus on the bottom of the Sistema pyramid, not the top. Dozens of people (like Tunstall) had interviewed Abreu on the record, and their interviews were publicly available; no one had systematically interviewed ordinary teachers and students off the record. My priority was clear.

But Oestreich’s question about the role of rumours, stories, and suspicions is interesting. Is referring to rumours – with the qualification that they are rumours – really “hardly scholarly or even journalistic rigor”?

To begin with, the information about the pyramid scheme comes from a journalistic article, published in Venezuela in a respected magazine in 1994, as I make quite clear in my book. If there is a lack of journalistic rigor here, the accusation should be made at the author of that article and the magazine in which it appeared, not me. Interestingly, no such accusation has been made.

As for scholarly method, this is a point I address explicitly (and repeatedly!) in my book, so it’s rather disingenuous of Oestreich (and others) to ignore this. For example, in the introduction I write:

I had no way of judging the veracity of the rumors or the seriousness of the warnings, but I was more interested in the fact that Sistema employees found them believable. Whether founded or not, they circulated widely and worried Venezuelan musicians, who thought that getting on the wrong side of Abreu could bring serious consequences. These stories are worthy of consideration because they form part of El Sistema’s belief system, and also because they have real effects on musicians, inducing behavior like the self-censorship that makes understanding the program so complicated.

For a social scientist, rumours are interesting. To take a hypothetical example: if I went to study a school and found that all the teachers claimed in private that the headmaster was diverting funds into his bank account, I would be just as interested in their belief as in the question of whether or not it was true. (For me, the latter question would be one for an investigative journalist, or for the police.) I would be interested to know how the school functioned as a community when it did not trust its leader. For me, and I would argue for many scholars with an anthropological bent, the beliefs are just as real as anything else in this story. To write “the headmaster is corrupt” would be wrong; to write “the teachers believe that the headmaster is corrupt” is a statement of a significant fact. A book about the school that did not mention this fact would give a false impression of the atmosphere at the institution and the way that it functioned. For a social scientist, I would argue, to ignore pervasive rumours would actually be poor practice.

As the well-known anthropologist Anna Tsing writes:

“To study ghosts ethnographically means to take issues of haunting seriously. If the analyst merely made fun of beliefs in ghosts, the study would be of little use. Several other steps would be needed: a description of ghost beliefs; an examination of the effects of ghost beliefs on social life; and, in the spirit of taking one’s informants seriously, a close attention to the questions that ghosts raise, such as the presence of death and its eerie reminders of things gone.”

In other words, the role of the ethnographer is not to determine whether ghosts exist or not. S/he may be more interested in what people believe than whether those beliefs are “true.” Even if a scientist came along and proved that ghosts didn’t exist, an anthropologist would still take the beliefs seriously.

Whoever is ultimately right about journalistic practice – Rivero or Oestreich – my methods are unremarkable from a scholarly perspective.

To take another example, Oestreich is upset because “Mr. Baker sometimes appears to give the same evidentiary weight to anecdotal memoirs and blogged opinion that he gives to his scholarly sources.” Yet giving “evidentiary weight” to a range of different kinds of sources is another common feature of qualitative research. The key is not the sources themselves but how they are used. Clearly, if a researcher used only data derived from social media, for example, that might be quite problematic (though it would depend on the precise project). But if the researcher used standard techniques like checking that data against information derived from other sources (such as print media, interviews, and observations), corroborating the data with informants, and comparing the data with findings from other academic studies, then that data could become very valuable and fully deserve to be given “evidentiary weight.”

It’s an interesting fact that none of the reviewers who claim to unmask a lack of scholarly rigour in my work are actually scholars. They’re all advocates or journalists. Tunstall accuses me of scholarly failings, yet her own book doesn’t even include references or a bibliography, so she simply does not have a leg to stand on.

Here are some questions to ponder: if there is such an obvious problem with my method, how come Oxford University Press and its three academic reviewers didn’t notice? How come Professors Robert Fink and Lucy Green – major names in the world of music studies internationally – endorsed the book? How come the two most positive responses in the media have come from journalists with PhDs?

As I hope I’ve shown, this is a fictitious problem, invented by people who don’t actually know much about the norms of scholarship and are just looking for something to hang their discomfort with my book on. Since they don’t have any evidence to counter mine, they can’t fault me on content; all that’s left is to take aim at method – yet this criticism ultimately falls flat, since both reviewers are on shaky ground here.

My book is, of course, packed with academic references, and my arguments rest on a bed of other scholars’ work. This is something that reviewers like Oestreich and Tunstall conveniently overlook, seeking instead to make the issues appear like a matter of opinion. Oestreich is sniffy about the portrayal of the orchestral profession in my book, dismissing it as “simply not one I recognized.” Yet in the three pages in which I focus on this question most closely, I cite 8 academic studies and 3 published accounts by musicians. To disagree with these 11 sources is fine – scholarship is always open to challenge – but such a weight of evidence cannot be flicked away with a casual “I don’t agree.”

Tunstall does something very similar, writing: “Baker argues that orchestral practice is not a viable pathway to social inclusion. Against this contention, I can simply invoke my own vivid experience of orchestral engagement in Venezuela.” One’s own vivid experience is fine and potentially very useful if used carefully and in conjunction with other sources of information, but it doesn’t counter a lengthy and carefully constructed academic argument that draws on reams of scholarship and evidence. “Social inclusion” is an abstract and ideologically loaded concept, and therefore not one that can be discussed meaningfully simply by drawing on brief observations in a foreign country whose language one barely speaks.

On a final note, the very people who accuse me of making unsupported statements are happy, moments later, to fabricate motivations for my study. Both reviewers use the word “vendetta,” yet as Oestreich is forced to admit, there’s not a shred of evidence for such a claim. Tunstall describes me as “dominated by an intense and single-minded intention to do El Sistema as much damage as possible,” which is simply ludicrous – particularly since my book includes a detailed explanation of its genesis and how it began from the very opposite starting-point: from the exhilarating experience of hearing the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the 2007 Proms, and the desire to understand what I believed to be a musical miracle.

It reminds me a bit of the climate change debate: not just the rejection of peer-reviewed research by appealing to personal experience, but also a conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure. As with most conspiracy theories, there is an obvious explanation, one presented clearly in my book, but it is rejected in favour of an imaginary one with no logical basis.

So I’m left back where I started. My book clearly upset Tunstall and Oestreich, but in the case of the former, because it countered a treasured belief, and in the case of the latter, because it left him “feeling a little oppressed.” All things considered, I take that as a vote of confidence.

3 thoughts on “Response to New York Times and Tunstall reviews

  1. Dr. Baker, I want to comment on your methods here as a follow up to the above criticism from Tunstall and Oestrich. As a music educator and young researcher who has pursued qualitative research in the field, I truly appreciate the elaborate triangulation of data presented in your book. The convergence of data from such a wide range of sources, both within Venezuela and outside, brings the strength and validity that such inquiry requires and deserves. It is scary to know that some people would think naming your key sources from interviews is an appropriate practice. Particularly in the case of El Sistema, regard for the participants is critical, and it is clear you made this a priority (as you would expect with any professional scholar).

    In regards to Tunstall’s words of “vendetta” and the negative tone Oestreich feels, I must say from an objective point of view I can understand why they may say this, as I do feel an overall negative tone. However, I would argue that the tone is one that naturally emerges from the nature of the data.. all of which is well justified throughout. The study sought to uncover what has not been researched before in El Sistema, the other side of the coin so to speak. A “sugar coating” would have not been appropriate or effective in painting a true ethnographic picture of El Sistema based on scholarly work/data.

    Hopefully we will see other serious investigations into El Sistema in the future as a result of this seminal work. Any organization deserves this sort of scrutiny, especially when children, their futures, and millions of dollars are all connected. It will be these future studies that either corroborate or contradict the data presented in your book. Either way, the greater a database of legitimate research available, the stronger or weaker initial findings will become.

  2. There is a good deal of ethnography and anthropology which elides the distinction between perception and reality, or manages to make the former stand for the latter by evading investigation of the latter. When you are talking about extremely serious allegations, it is not altogether surprising when a method which relies upon assembling perceptions – and in which (like in most ethnographies), the reader must take the ethnographer’s word for it that their reports are (a) based upon things actually said: (b) accurately reported; and (c) representative of the whole sample of data, not cherry-picked to suit one’s own pre-ordained conclusions. Generally, none of these things can be verified; this may be a reason why the ranks of musical ethnographers (in my opinion one of the most unhappy sub-disciplines of musicology, responsible for a range of very questionable work) tend to close ranks and blindly defend each other’s work without allowing any critical perspective to enter into the discussion.

    On the whole, I would categorise ‘pure’ ethnography as one of the closest branches of scholarship to journalism or even to tourist literature in some cases; many musical ethnographies (not this one) seem characterised by the naive belief that their method utterly supersedes all others which preceded them, a highly self-flattering tactic but which ultimately leads to threadbare work. Personally, I think ethnographically sourced data should where possible be checked against other more verifiable data (and ethnographic methods brought into dialogue with other scholarly approaches), but recognise that this is not feasible for some parts of your work, where participants are afraid to speak out. I am in a similar situation with the range of allegations of sexual abuse I have been told in the context of UK music education, at least not until some legal process has occurred such as may establish more firmly some ‘truth’, though this is rarely likely where perpetrators are deceased. In the case of your work on El Sistema, some of the conclusions depend upon simply believing one person’s word (and account of what they have been told) over another. In terms of wider conclusions about the manifestation of authority and hierarchies in El Sistema, the educational hermeneutics applied from Jorgensen and others require one to accept at face value an equation between certain educational processes and forms of dehumanisation simply on grounds of apparent structural similarity; I find this hard to accept, and think Jorgensen’s work relies to too great a degree upon rhetoric designed to win over those who were always going to be sympathetic, rather than self-critical rigour. This is not to say that the conclusions at which you arrive are not valid.

    I know you are well aware of these issues; I just raise them here because I believe it is not altogether surprising that some question this scholarly method, and find appeals to academic authority (and to whether or not journalists have PhD) to be of questionable value; much depends upon how highly one esteems particular types of academics, as compared to other interested parties with opinions.

    As you know, I think this work is immensely important (and is not really like the sort of ethnographic work I view critically), and has raised all sorts of extremely important issues which have consequences beyond the realms of El Sistema, and hopefully should stimulate further investigation. But I do think these sorts of responses are somewhat inevitable. If one is to produce work which gets a response outside of narrow communities of scholars, one needs to be prepared for responses not couched in the language and underwritten by the assumptions found in such scholarly communities. Pulling out cards of scholarly oneupmanship – which I am not saying you do, but can see why it would seem that way to some – may not be the best tactic.

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