This presentation will outline preliminary findings from a project which uses contemporary music in the classroom in order to help students relate to theoretical concepts and develop their ‘sociological imagination’. It is based on a year-long project which has focussed on playing and discussing songs that were related to the concept of identity. Identity is a key concept in contemporary social science. It is described by theorists as fluid, changing, negotiated and contested. Identity is represented by individual and collective actors in myriad ways, and it is constantly communicated and interpreted throughout social life (Hall, Evans and Nixon 2013). The social construction of identity in a globalised world has many layers and students sometimes find this abstract idea challenging. To facilitate students’ appreciation of the concept of identity, it helps to encourage them to consider different identity markers with which personal and national identities are symbolised. Music can be a particularly powerful way in which identity is constructed for and by people. It can evoke deep emotions, it can cross spatial boundaries, facilitate everyday rituals and give us a sense of self (Frith 1996). In other words, it can give meaning to human existence. The construction through music of Irish identity in particular has recently been the subject of research. Historical contexts of colonialism, oppression and diaspora have all led to an extensive and rich legacy musical expression of Irishness. Thus, Irish songs can be understood as ‘texts’ containing messages about the meaning of Irish identities (see for example Smyth 2009).
The current project has sought to utilise the rich emotional and symbolic aspects of music as identity marker to facilitate learning about the ways in which identity is constructed and performed. Students in three different modules were presented with songs in class, provided a lyrics sheet and a set of questions, and asked to participate in a collective analysis of the meaning(s) of the songs. The purpose of this exercise was to encourage participation and engagement; to make a theoretical concept exciting and relevant to students’ own lives; and to familiarise the students with tools of the sociological analysis of a cultural form with which they would be familiar. Finally, students were asked to provide a written reflection on music, identity and on participating in the exercise. The responses were overwhelmingly positive and students seemed to have not only enjoyed, but also benefitted from the project. However, several areas for improvement also came to light. This presentation will summarise their responses and draw some tentative conclusions for using music as a teaching tool. Author keywords: Sociology, social science, teaching, education, class-room activities, student engagement, student feedback, music, songs