The sociology of popular music, interdisciplinarity and aesthetic autonomy




This paper considers the impact of interdisciplinarity upon sociological research, focusing on one particular case: the academic study of popular music. ‘Popular music studies’ is an area of research characterized by interdisciplinarity and, in keeping with broader intellectual trends, this approach is assumed to offer significant advantages. As such, popular music studies is broadly typical of contemporary intellectual and governmental attitudes regarding the best way to research specific topics. Such interdisciplinarity, however, has potential costs and this paper highlights one of the most significant: an over-emphasis upon shared substantive interests and subsequent undervaluation of shared epistemological understandings. The end result is a form of ‘ghettoization’ within sociology itself, with residents of any particular ghetto displaying little awareness of developments in neighbouring ghettos. Reporting from one such ghetto, this paper considers some of the ways in which the sociology of popular music has been limited by its positioning within an interdisciplinary environment and suggests two strategies for developing a more fully-realized sociology of popular music. First, based on the assumption that a sociological understanding of popular music shares much in common with a sociological understanding of everything else, this paper calls for increased intradisciplinary research between sociologists of varying specialisms. The second strategy, however, involves a reconceptualization of the disciplinary limits of sociology, as it argues that a sociology of popular music needs to accept musical specificity as part of its remit. Such acceptance has thus far been limited not only by an interdisciplinary context but also by the long-standing sociological scepticism toward the analysis of aesthetic objects. As such, this paper offers an intervention into wider debates concerning the remit of sociological enquiry, and whether it is ever appropriate for sociological analyses of culture to consider ‘internal’ aesthetic structures. In relation to the specific case study, the paper argues that considering musical specificity is a necessary component of a sociology of popular music, and some possibilities for developing a ‘materialist sociology of music’ are outlined.