How do you solve a problem like capitalism?

This essay was written in February 2021 for a special issue in Music & Science about how music science can help address society’s most pressing issues. The paper was rejected but I’ve finally gotten around to incorporating much of the feedback I received nearly a year ago and I think it’s an important piece to share. I hope it sparks conversation, questions and change!

When I first saw the call for this special issue, my first reaction was to disregard it. What on earth could music science possibly do to solve the most pressing issues of our time? However, the question stayed with me and the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this field of research does have a role to play. I think a little bit of that role is directly related to the research we do, but mostly it is the people who do that research, and how we go about doing it that will help tackle the problem. In this paper, I will first identify the distinct but deeply interconnected systems of racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy and colonialism as, in my opinion, the most pressing issues of our time. Next I discuss how these systems manifest in the academy. Finally, I will offer a non-exhaustive list of individual and systemic changes at three levels of interactivity with “the system” (here the academy): positions of power inside the system, using the system’s existing mechanisms and working outside the system.

Before I dive into my arguments, I will tell you some relevant information about myself in order to situate my arguments (Haraway, 2003). I am a white, cis-queer (cisgender-queer), able-bodied, highly educated, bilingual middle-class settler born and raised in the Canadian province of Québec, in an area occupying the traditional homelands of the Algonquin, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and the Anishnaabe. I am an activist, an anti-capitalist, a feminist and a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland. I live and work on the unceded and unsurrendered Lands of the Mi’kmaq and the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk. The Inuit of Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut and the Innu of Nitassinan, and their ancestors, are the original peoples of Labrador, the mainland portion of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The problem

When I first contemplated the question of how music science could help solve our ‘most pressing social issues’, as worded in the call for papers, I thought of things like music therapy, music to relieve stress, and music for bonding and social movement building. But the rise in problems like societal stress and/or loneliness leading to suicide (Bilsker & White, 2011; Leenaars, 2006; Mitra & Shroff, 2007), obesity and hunger (Patel, 2012), and the need for social movements like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future, to name only a few, are only symptoms of the root problem: racial capitalism and its close companions, heteropatriarchy and colonialism.

Capitalism has been the dominant economic model of our world for approximately 500 years and relies on the appropriation of ever more increasing amounts of resources to feed its growth model of wealth accumulation (Federici, 2004; Wright, 2016). It is extractive and inherently exploitative, whether it is towards labour or the earth (Wright, 2016). Racial capitalism is a concept introduced by Cedric J. Robinson (2000) which describes how capitalism extracts from and exploits populations and its lands it deems inferior; essentially, non-whites. There are countless examples of this in the world, especially in agriculture and the textile industry. To give just one example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has had a devastating effect on small farmers in Mexico who can no longer earn a living because the price of food has been severely depressed by joining the free market. In a nutshell: capitalism needs racism and racism is enforced by capitalism.

Heteropatriarchy is the social system in which straight men are the norm, and everyone else is marginalized. Heteropatriarchy is also racial, in that the straight white man is the norm, and everyone else is marginalized. This marginalization can be applied to one or many aspects of an individual’s identity. For example, a straight white woman is marginalized for being woman; a black, queer woman is marginalized for being non-white, non-straight and woman. This multiple-faceted analysis of social location is called intersectionality (Cooper, 2016; Crenshaw, 1989). Capitalism was implemented by men (Federici, 2004) and still prioritizes men (e.g. CEOs, promotion, citation still skew male) so capitalism is not only racial, it also heteropatriarchical.

Finally, colonialism in all its forms is a project of capitalism. That being said, capitalism and colonialism are not synonymous, but they are related (Tuck & Yang, 2012). The powers of Europe needed new land from which to extract resources and on which to reproduce their labour in order to fuel their growth-based economy. This process was and continues to be violent and enforces the hierarchical system of heteropatriarchy (Simpson, 2017b; Stark, 2016). In many Indigenous cultures of North America, women hold positions of power and are highly respected (Bear & Gareau, 2015). This threatened colonial rule; therefore, one of the first things the colonizers did upon contact with Indigenous populations is criminalize and degrade their women and ‘teach’ the men that they were in charge (Simpson, 2017b). The effects of this are still seen today (Palmater, 2016). Add to that land stealing, the open-air imprisonment of reserves, abusive residential schools and the incredibly patronizing Indian Act (Canada) – all for access to land – and the destructive effects of capitalism, heteropatriarchy and colonialism are plain to see. Colonialism affects the majority of the world today: if you are not living on colonized land (i.e. settler, e.g. Canada), you are likely living in the colonizer’s society (e.g. Britain), which means you also live in these destructive systems. However, living in a colonial system as the colonizer (or settler) shields you from its most destructive effects.

I, likely as the majority of colleagues, grew up learning about capitalism as the best economic system available and as the only valid option. It creates wealth – indeed, there has never been more wealth in the world as there is now – through its free markets and growth models, it spurs innovation to create an incredibly technologically savvy society, and offers everyone an opportunity to “make it” in life. For a long time, I believed this. It is easy for those of us born into privilege to do so since we’re the people who reap the biggest benefits of this system. Meanwhile, the cost is carefully hidden from us, especially the human cost, for example sickness due to environmental poisoning (e.g. Morgan, 2015; Women’s Earth Alliance & Native Youth Sexual Health Network, 2016). The environmental cost is beginning to become unavoidable, but we also know that we will not see the worst of it as climate change will affect poorer and small island nations most severely (Mendelsohn et al., 2006). Though there has never been more wealth as there is now, that wealth is concentrated in the hands of an extremely narrow elite off the backs of millions of others who are struggling to even survive, let alone live (United Nations, n.d.).

The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a glimpse of the highly exploited low-paid labouring class when it became very obvious how much we rely on poorly paid labour both in our home countries (e.g. grocery store workers) and abroad (e.g. farmers) for our survival. Giant retailers like Amazon scrambled to provide essential items so that those of us not labouring in low-paying jobs would not suffer and complain, and quickly worked to hide the hands that support us through contactless everything. Jeff Bezos, and many other giant multi-national founders and CEOs made more money during this pandemic than ever before (Press, n.d.), breaking profit records while millions died a preventable death (World Health Organization, 2021). The plastics industry has also co-opted this crisis to continue flooding the world with plastic, notably attempting to delay the implementation of the European Single Use Plastics Directive (Boucher, 2020) when we now know that reusable items are safe (Expert Collective, 2020).

As a highly educated cis white woman, I benefit from capitalism, as well as colonialism. Heteropatriarchy has not directly harmed me, but I know that I am lucky in this regard. In Canada, 1 in 5 women experience some form of abuse in their intimate relationship and on average, every six days a woman is killed by her intimate partner (Beattie & Cotter, 2010; Report of the Secretary-General, 2006). Indigenous women are three times more likely to suffer violence and significantly more likely to be killed by an acquaintance than Canadian women (Brzozowski et al., 2006). Despite the safety and success I have enjoyed in my life, I do not support these systems. Neither should you.


The academy as we know it was founded by wealthy, white, cis-het men. Therefore, its structure and research methods predominantly reflect their worldview, including hierarchy, entitlement to knowledge, and a failure to recognize different types of knowledge as valid. Academia is highly hierarchical, with power unevenly distributed and concentrated in the hands of progressively fewer people as we move up the hierarchy. This is true at the macro scale (university > department heads > faculty > students) and can be true at the lab scale (PI > postdoc > graduate students > undergraduate students). A hierarchical lab is not necessarily the best environment for a productive and thriving lab. A hierarchical structure places students at the mercy of their supervisor, who could easily destroy someone’s career before they can even begin by blocking their access to grant, conference and publishing opportunities. We’ve all heard enough horror stories to know it happens. Without a supervisor who is supportive, a graduate student has limited power. Mentorship is important, but the power imbalance is great. Thankfully, we have freedom at the lab level to run things differently, and many labs do not have strict hierarchies and have supportive PIs; more on how we can emulate and replicate non-hierarchical lab environments in the section on solutions later. In a nutshell, collaboration is preferable to competition.

Another deeply patronizing academic practice is our scientific philosophy: we do research in order to uncover the truth. However, there isn’t one single universal truth because context matters (Simpson, 2014; Smith, 2013). While some truths may converge, others may be incommensurable (Tuck & Yang, 2012); we must be better at accepting incommensurability and the general messiness of the world. For example, research claiming relevance to “humanity” ignores the very real power imbalances felt by different populations around the world. Not to mention different cultures, which may conceive of any given concept differently than any other given culture. Tied to this is our narrow view of what we consider to be valid knowledge, namely peer-reviewed published articles, as if someone’s personal experience, or a discussion, isn’t a valid form of knowledge. I am not suggesting that we throw out peer-review, only that we should include more types of knowledge. This includes citing a larger variety of sources in peer-reviewed articles, and considering media like films, podcasts, blogs, TV/radio interviews and stories (oral or written) valid ways of creating knowledge and recognizing them as such on CVs. As an example, I’ve made a point in this paper to use “extra-academic sources” to support my arguments, like webinar or podcast discussions, as well as reports by reliable news media outlets and international organizations.

Scientists also tend to treat their science as objective (e.g. ‘objective’ measures of a given concept; but choices were made about that measure – I have done this many times) and generally fail to place their work in a social and political context. However, all knowledge is situated (Haraway, 2003). We all have biases, based on our lived experience and place and acknowledging our biases will make our work stronger by contextualizing it. In this particular context, my social location is especially relevant as I write from a position of privilege. One way to situate our knowledge creation in research papers would be to move from the passive to the active voice. The passive voice is meant to be more ‘objective’, but the reality is that we are not objective beings. Simply acknowledging this by using ‘I’ and ‘we’ in our writing would go a long way in contextualizing the knowledge we are creating. For example, every chapter in Tracing Ochre (Polack, 2018) is written in an active voice and includes some form of context about the author. Plus, as the labels imply, reading an active voice is more engaging than a passive voice, which surely is more enjoyable for everyone! Other ways to situate knowledge could be to share 1) the personal, social and political context in which the research was conducted; 2) how the methods were influenced by the disciplines the researcher(s) is/are familiar with; 3) how the recruitment and makeup of research subjects affects the applicability/generalizability of results and 4) the social and political implications of the research.

Finally, I think it is extremely important for us to acknowledge that the research questions we choose to ask are political (O’Brien, 1993). Many of us think of research as separate to politics (I certainly used to), but just like it is impossible to be apolitical in everyday life, the questions we choose to ask, who is asking them, and how we answer them creates knowledge where certain values and interests are reproduced and others are not. This makes all knowledge creation political. As O’Brien puts it:

 “There are infinite questions that you could ask about the universe, but as only one scientist, you must necessarily choose to ask only certain questions. Asking certain questions means not asking other questions, and this decision has implications for society, for the environment, and for the future. The decision to ask any question, therefore, is necessarily a value laden, social, political decision as well as a scientific decision (1993:706)”.

For example, measuring musical training on a scale (e.g. Gold-MSI (Müllensiefen et al., 2014); something I have done many times) implies that more is better and can place music as an elite practice. As another example, studying melody, rhythm and harmony centers Western music to the exclusion of other musics and other conceptualizations of music altogether. Those of us who refer to ourselves as apolitical are simply privileged enough to not be deeply affected by the changes in government policies that come with a change in political party. Immigrants, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the homeless – they are among those who do not have that privilege.  As privileged members of the academy, it is a responsibility to create knowledge with a value-based and political lens.

Some solutions

In the face of such gargantuan harmful systems, it can be discouraging to think about how to bring them down, or transform them to benefit us all. A common wisdom in activist circles is to take a three-pronged approach (American Studies Association, 2020):

  1. Infiltrate and work in the system by taking positions of power (e.g. elected officials; work inside the government to make change)
  2. Work in the confines of the system (e.g. the courts; challenge the government to make change)
  3. Work outside the system (e.g. intentional communities; create your own governance structure)

The rest of this paper will be divided into three sections discussing each of these methods and how we can implement them in the context of music science research.


This section is short as I only have one suggestion here: to appoint or support the appointment of individuals who are anti-capitalist, anti-racist, non-white and non-male (and/or other traditionally excluded persons such as queer or disabled individuals) to positions of power in the academy. This includes but is not limited to department heads, vice-president positions in universities, heads of organizations (e.g. ESCOM, SEMPRE, SMPC, etc.) and journal editors. These individuals can be the voices and leaders of systemic change in the academic environments and cultures under their leadership. Some challenges are the need to balance academic qualifications with identity and politics and the need to be weary of anyone claiming marginalized identities or anti-oppressive politics to get into a position of power. Ideally, a candidate to any of the positions mentioned has a track record of enacting their anti-oppressive politics. For the rest of us holding some privilege in the academy, our job is to support them and to do the work of unlearning. We must do this work because otherwise this “extra emotional and discursive labour” (brownamsavenger, 2017; as cited in Robinson, 2020, p.20) is saddled on previously marginalized individuals, which is unfair. We must centre their voices – and then listen (Combahee River Collective, 2017; Kelley, 2002).

Work in the system

In this section I will discuss some of the ways we can make structural change in our institutions, labs and field without necessarily being in a position of highest leadership or power like those named in the previous section. Practices such as open science, virtual meetings, community-driven research, citizen science, and nurturing an intentional lab culture help foster inclusion, care, feminism, anti-racism and anti-colonialism.

Open science is the practice of sharing all of the research process publicly, where anyone can “access, use, modify and share data and content for any purpose” (Open Science Foundation). This philosophy creates a knowledge commons where access to knowledge is free to anyone. In this way, it is more inclusive and it facilitates collaborations rather than competition. Open science practices originated in the Global South as a method of getting around the significant pay walls typical in the Global North such as journal publication and software fees, as well as the high costs associated with meeting attendance (Liboiron & Molloy, 2017; Tennant et al., 2019). As much as I am glad that we are beginning to adopt these practices in the Global North, we must take care not to co-opt the movement (any more than we already have), else we’re looking at yet another system propping up racism and colonialism. For example, open science lends itself well to quantitative research, but less so (though not impossibly) to qualitative research. Specifically, much feminist research is qualitative and there is no such thing as a “replication crisis” (Bennett, 2021). Open science is slowly making its way into music science, with a symposium on the topic at SMPC in 2019 in New York City and our journal Music Perception offering the registered report format. I encourage all of us to continue developing open science practices in our labs, extending to our departments and campuses, and to ask that more journals offer registered reports.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to move many of our meetings to a virtual format. Though it has its drawbacks, I’d argue that its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks. Primarily, that engagement and participation seems to have sky-rocketed. I attended a music neuroscience day event in April 2020 (Music and Neuroscience Teleconference, 2020) and was astounded to find more than 400 others on the call; I only recognized a handful of names as I scrolled through the participant list. Based on my previous conference attendance, I had no idea that there were this many music neuroscientists in the world. ICMPC16-ESCOM11 this year has hubs in places where I didn’t even know there were music scientists. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Richard Parncutt pioneered the first multi-hub, blended virtual/live ICMPC, which resulted in double the attendance when compared to previous ICMPC meetings (Onderdijk, 2019). Meeting in person has tangible benefits, for example making it easier to connect and easier to engage in spontaneous conversations and events. However, as we get increasingly accustomed to virtual gatherings, those “coffee break conversations” will likely be less daunting and easier to schedule virtually. Technologies like Gather will be helpful in encouraging virtual social connections. From now on, single-day events should always have a virtual attendance option, if not be held completely virtually; longer events should always have a virtual attendance option by default.

Community-driven research and citizen science are different but related research practices that help break down the barriers of knowledge-keeping, extraction and elitism between academia and the communities we work in. Community-driven research refers to the practice of researching questions formulated by a community, in partnership with that community (Liboiron et al., 2018). It is important to differentiate this from public engagement or outreach practices, which promote the “deficit model” (Simis et al., 2016), where it is assumed that communities need to be educated by academics.  The assumption that non-academics lack relevant forms of expertise (e.g. history of a community, traditional knowledge of the land) is untrue and highly elitist, and must be avoided. I’ll distinguish here between elitism and expertise; expertise is valuable but considering research expertise as the only valid kind of expertise is elitist. Researchers have valuable expertise that is valuable and I do believe that it is part of our responsibilities as researchers to share our work with the public. However, context matters. Who is your research for? What stake do they have in the work? How will it affect them? What expertise can they bring to the research? Research in partnership with communities fosters inclusion and knowledge sharing and creation, and is a feminist and anti-colonialist practice, especially when working with communities who are typically oppressed (e.g. Indigenous communities). It also goes back to the politics of science; community-led questions will align with the politics of the community.

In music science, we investigate a wide range of questions, some with the potential to have direct benefits to the public, and some that do not. I have always supported fundamental research (most of my work is) and I think it has value. However, its value depends on the goals we set ourselves as researchers. If our goal is to help solve the world’s greatest social crises, the focus of this special issue, then fundamental research should not be the focus of the majority of our work. In most if not all of our current work, we formulate questions, take data from individuals, and analyse and publish it to be shared with other academics, which translates to an extractive and exclusive research methodology. The most problematic type of data extraction takes places with vulnerable populations, for example as Indigenous populations tested in cross-cultural research, where we formulate a question, find a population we find “suitable”, extract data from them, and leave. An example of this is some of the work done on the Tsimane’ people of the Amazon (Jacoby et al., 2019; McDermott et al., 2016). Much of the work we do with vulnerable populations (including my own with older adults) is in service of better understanding the fundamentals of music perception. But does this help solve our biggest social issues? I do not think it does. If this is our goal, we should focus on those questions that matter to the communities we work and live in and work with our communities to answer them.

Citizen science is the practice of recruiting citizens’ help in the research process, most commonly for data collection (Cohn, 2008; Conrad & Hilchey, 2011; Ungar et al., 2012). Most citizen science projects I know of were conceived in partnership with a community organization, where the recruitment of citizens to assist with data collection is part of that partnership. As music is virtually omnipresent in daily life, there is a lot of potential to harness citizen science in our field. We’ve already had some examples of citizen science, such as the Amsterdam Music Lab’s games on their website and the Clapping Music app developed at Queen Mary University (Duffy & Pearce, 2018). However, as far as I know, these projects are researcher-led. Though many feature partnerships, these are typically with other institutions (e.g. museums, orchestras) and not community groups. Future work harnessing citizen science should use it as a way to collect data in community-driven research projects. A recent example from outside music science is the NL food pricing project, a partnership between the Nunatsiavut government, the Social Justice Cooperative of Newfoundland and Labrador (SJCNL), the CLEAR lab (introduced below) and Memorial University of Newfoundland. This project was initiated by a question the Nunatsiavut government posed on Twitter, and that CLEAR and the SJCNL had the resources to help answer.

Finally, lab culture is something we all have a role in and it is something we can all work on right now. The Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) at Memorial University of Newfoundland, headed by Max Liboiron, is an excellent example of a feminist, anti-colonial lab. They describe themselves as “[e]qual parts research space, methods incubator, and social collective”. The work they do is “based on values of humility, accountability, and anti-colonial research relations.” This permeates all the work they do, from relations with the communities they work with to lab meetings. In no particular order, here are a few examples of practices that I think can be implemented in music science labs.

First, all decisions are made using consensus decision-making processes (Bressen, 2007; Butler & Rothstein, 2007), where everyone must be in agreement. Sometimes consensus can be reached very quickly, sometimes it may take weeks, but commitment to this process hears and values everyone’s voice, and results in everyone being content with the decision. It also distributes power much more evenly (it is acknowledged that faculty members’ comments/opinions may still hold more weight, but this is kept in awareness). What happens when there’s a disagreement that simply can’t be resolved? I’m not sure. As far as I have read, it is extremely rare to arrive at a complete impasse. In contrast, voting for a majority will often leave some individuals unhappy with a result with their needs and/or concerns ignored by the majority, and it concentrates power in the hands of fewer individuals. There are different forms of consensus-based decision-making, with varying levels of flexibility.

Second, the lab book (CLEAR, 2021), which states the lab’s values, policies and protocols is written by all lab members in collaboration. It is important to discuss and state our values explicitly so that no assumptions are made and everyone is invested in upholding them. Their lab book is also a living document, meaning it is updated as often as is necessary as practices change and people move in and out of the lab. Every lab does not of course have to share these same values, but having that discussion at a lab meeting regularly (e.g. yearly) when lab membership changes is worthwhile.

Third, the lab operates with explicit policies of openness and support between all lab members, and wellbeing is prioritized. This can be summarized as a culture of care and provides the best working environment. If you are burnt out, sick, broken hearted, overwhelmed, etc., you simply cannot do productive work. CLEAR’s first lab rule is that if you feel any of these things, go home. The lab I currently work in also operates this way, though it is not explicitly stated anywhere. On a personal note, I do not work 40 hours a week but the hours I do work are efficient and I have so far never had any complaints about my work performance. I have been very lucky in the lab environments I have worked in; I know that if I were forced to work more and strict hours, my productivity would drop dramatically. How can we ensure wellbeing is prioritized for all, and not for some over others? I think communication, openness and empathy are key to achieving wellbeing for all. I believe in a world of abundance, not scarcity.

Fourth, every paper includes a land acknowledgement to highlight that the work is taking place on Indigenous land. This of course only applies to colonized land, but this includes most of the world outside of Europe. In this paper my land acknowledgement is in the text but for research articles, I put it in the acknowledgements section; this is something very easy we can all do if we live on stolen land.

The last example I’d like to share is how the CLEAR lab chooses references. They aim for their reference list to be at least 51% female first-author papers, also taking into account people of colour, or other social and career positions such as students or early-career researchers to help boost voices that are traditionally under-represented in academia (Mott & Cockayne, 2017). They also include extra-academic references, such as conversations with community members, who have relevant knowledge about the topic at hand. I have attempted to follow these rules in writing this piece and, given the extensive reading I do around feminist, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial issues, was surprised to find that I still had to make an active effort to achieve the 51% female first-author target.

There are many more lab practices that I came across reading CLEAR’s lab book that I am excited about and think should be adopted widely. As Max points out, Western culture does not equal colonial, and there are ways of being anti-colonial in a Western context (Liboiron, 2021). If these ideas excite you and you’re looking for more, I encourage you to check out their website. Furthermore, CLEAR is not alone in their feminist and anti-colonial research practices; a list of similar labs can also be found on their website.

Work outside the system

In this section I’ll discuss actions we can take as individuals outside of academia. There is an almost endless list of options for lifestyle changes and activism that can be undertaken so I will only offer some suggestions and insights based on my own experience. There are too many problems in the world to deal with at any one time, so I’d suggest first focusing on one issue that is important to you. My focus is on reducing waste, both on a personal and a systemic level. I have made changes to my lifestyle to reduce personal waste, which incidentally also has greatly reduced my day-to-day cost of living and I work with my local zero waste group, an arm of the Social Justice Cooperative of Newfoundland and Labrador. One of our current projects is the development of a city-wide community composting project in the capital city of St. John’s and raising awareness of which brands are most at fault for plastic pollution locally through a plastic audit (see our data here). I’m also interested in democratic reform, Green New Deals, circular economies, decolonization, anti-racism, climate change, and more but it’s impossible to work on all of these with equal energy at the same time.

As much as individual actions are positive, systemic change through movements is also necessary. As music scientists, we have many diverse skills and lots of creativity to bring to social movements. To start getting involved, look for groups in your area that work on an issue you are passionate about. If there are none, look for others elsewhere and see if you can’t start one locally. If this feels like a lot, a small thing that we can all do is amplify the voices of activists on social media. This is largely performative but it is a way for us to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those with less privilege than us. This can even be done within academic circles: amplify the voices of students and early career researchers, women, people of colour, queer folks, etc. In short, those who are traditionally excluded from the ivory tower of academia. Another smaller but important action to take is to read. As much as we need to centre traditionally marginalized individuals, we cannot ask for their labour to educate us on the issues they face; that labour is ours to take on. My own worldview has changed significantly in the past few months by reading books such as Caliban and the Witch, by Silvia Federici (Federici, 2004), As we have always done: Indigenous freedom through radical resistance, by Leanne Betasamosake-Simpson (Simpson, 2017a) and Are prisons obsolete?, by Angela Davis (Davis, 2011), in addition to writings by authors such as Kim TallBear (e.g. TallBear, 2013), Nick Estes (e.g. Estes, 2019), Pamela Palmater (e.g. Palmater, 2011) and Robin D.G. Kelley (e.g. Kelley, 2002a), just to name a few of my favourites.

The type of action we take, as individuals or as a group, has varying levels of effectiveness in making change. For example, protests have no impact on policy making and will effect no tangible change; lobbying does and will. That being said, protests build movements, which then gain power and then the ability to lobby. The same goes for social media sharing: it doesn’t actually result in any change but it builds movements who can gain the power to do so. Another effective way of driving change is through disruptive action, for example civil disobedience. Those in power will only pay attention if you get in their way. Protests don’t do that; civil disobedience does. The point of this is not to encourage everyone to start practicing civil disobedience or become lobbyists; everyone should only get involved with what they are comfortable with. The point is to be aware of the impact of our actions, whatever those may be, which may in turn help us choose what kinds of actions we’d like to take.

I’d like to close by saying that I don’t have all the answers. I can only make suggestions based on what I know and have experienced, keeping in mind that I am writing from a position of privilege. However, I also don’t feel like I need to know all the answers to be able to critique the problems I see in the systems I live in. None of us do, though we are often manipulated into thinking we should. I am not the first person in music science to discuss the social responsibilities of researchers – thinking here of writings by Richard Parncutt and John Sloboda for example – and I expect I will not be the last. My goal with this piece is to start a conversation in our field about how we can change in ways that will help tackle the biggest problem facing our society: capitalism.

Taking down capitalism is a massive undertaking and it’s not going to happen overnight, or even possibly in our lifetimes. One of the things that’s important to realize is that it’s also not going to be overthrown by one new, better system that will make vast, sweeping changes quickly. The way to take down capitalism is to chip away at it, slowly, at different levels and in thousands of different ways (Wright, 2016). Community projects, social enterprises, co-operatives, small groups of people that support each other and create what is necessary to meet each other’s needs. Mistakes will be made but that’s okay; we’ll learn and adapt. Combined with systemic change towards equity, inclusivity and accountability, small, medium and large changes can together create meaningful and lasting improvements for all humans around the world. As privileged members of the academy, it is our responsibility to help make these changes happen.


I would like to thank my study group Laura Tyler and Julia Sheldon for the discussion that convinced me to write this piece in the first place, and Christopher Cumby for brainstorming with me. I would like to thank Richard Parncutt, Laura Tyler and Julia Sheldon and book club members Kerri Claire Neil, Daniel Griffin and Joanne Payne for helpful feedback on the first draft.


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