I am left-handed, and grew up studying classical flute, which is generally played the same way regardless of the hand you use to write. But when I was eighteen, I decided to finally drop the flute (figuratively), and learn guitar. But the only guitar around for me to play was a $100 Fender Squire, and it was a righty. At this point, I was mulling over what I was going to major in at university and didn’t suspect that any new musical pursuits would amount to much, so I didn’t think twice about starting out on the wrong hand.
It turned out that I really liked guitar, and threw myself into it. I took an extra year off before starting school, and in that time used my classical background to catch up on improvisational theory. I ingratiated myself to the local jazz department, who admitted me on the basis of my “potential”. So, I was suddenly majoring in jazz guitar and not too long after, gigging around town. Fast forward one music degree, and I felt stymied. There were some aspects of playing that just wouldn’t come to me, easy or hard. For example, funky strumming—make that any kind of strumming. I could comp pianistically and pluck with my fingers, but the loose, yet controlled, percussive movements required for funk seemed out of reach. My right arm just didn’t want to move that way.
This is a performance of a tune I wrote and arranged for my graduation recital, about 5 years after I started playing guitar.
In 2010, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan produced an insightful, if damning paper exposing the extreme ethnic, cultural, geographical, and social class biases that pervade most psychology experiments. The authors estimate that virtually all participants are ‘Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries’, or ‘WEIRD’. As the authors point out, nobody wants to publish in the ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students’, but even today, few scientists have the grounds to claim their findings generalise across socio-cultural-experiential barriers. And despite a somewhat non-establishment disciplinary foundation, music science is just as vulnerable to selectively representative samples as the next field. Nonetheless, diversifying the subject pool is increasingly recognised as a problem, and one that won’t go away on its own.
But what about the rest of the scientific process? In scientific experiments, we often force choices, or attempt to reveal contrasting features between supposedly objective categories – but do our designs reflect something factual, a physical constant, or a belief we hold because, well, everyone else we know believes the same thing? Does the research question itself reflect a universal human experience, or just ours? I don’t think that diversity in the recruitment process is enough. Rather, considering scientific questions from another cultural (or experiential) lense permits the space and detachment we need to determine what is truly ‘objective’ – or, at least, what amounts to a shared subjectivity across human societies.
This isn’t just an issue for the so-called ‘soft science’ of psychology. Take the concept of species. It doesn’t sound like a topic that biologists would do much philosophizing over, until you examine the term in its historical context, and adopt a data-driven, rather than ‘common-sense’ approach. As Darwin put it, the status of ‘species’ is “one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other”, a sentiment that has only gained credibility as time passes, according to the Smithsonian:
The idea of a species is ultimately a human construct. With advancing DNA technology, scientists are now able to draw finer and finer lines between what they consider species by looking at the genetic code that defines them. How scientists choose to draw that line depends on whether their subject is an animal or plant; the tools available; and the scientist’s own preference and expertise.