Celebrating anthropological research in New Zealand: Lorena Gibson

Can music really change lives? This is the goal of El Sistema, a Venezuelan music and social development initiative which began in 1975 and is today one of the world’s largest orchestral music education programmes. Sistema-inspired programmes operate in over 60 countries worldwide, including New Zealand, providing musical and social opportunities to underprivileged children with the aim of transforming their lives, their families’ lives, and their wider communities. Dr Lorena Gibson has received a Marsden Fast-Start Award for her project East Side Orchestras: Music, Poverty, and Social Change, which explores the social impacts of three charitable organisations that provide free Sistema-inspired programmes in urban Wellington.

ASAA/NZ Chairperson Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich recently sat down with Lorena to chat about her project.

Brigitte: How did you become interested in this topic?

Lorena: After finishing my PhD I needed a research topic that would suit my new status as a parent and continue my interests in hope, development and social justice. I wanted to study something 'at home' in Wellington so I wouldn't need to be away from my daughter for long periods. I also needed a project I could begin without the security of funding or a permanent job (which I didn't have at the time). A serendipitous sequence of events, starting with a conversation with Julie Park at an ASAA/NZ conference dinner in 2012, led me to Sistema Aotearoa and eventually the three organisations I'll be working with: Arohanui Strings, Porirua Soundscapes, and Virtuoso Strings. As a musician who has worked and volunteered for community-based organisations like these, I'm excited about combining my personal interests with my anthropological ones.

Why is it called 'East Side Orchestras'?

Because I'm focusing on orchestral music education programmes in Cannons Creek and Taita, which are eastern suburbs of Porirua and Hutt City.

Why is this important to study now?

Child poverty is a serious concern in contemporary New Zealand society, and Māori and Pasifika children are overrepresented in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation. Also, the number of Sistema-inspired programmes is growing rapidly, both here and overseas. These programmes are frequently celebrated as ways to improve the lives of children living in poverty, particularly for their successes in children's musical excellence and education achievement. However, a growing number of researchers are sceptical of El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu’s claims about the wider social changes that his programme inspires (such as steering at-risk youth away from a life of crime). They critique orchestral music education programmes for promoting middle-class Western ideologies and for unintentionally reproducing rather than challenging structural inequalities. This research is important because it is the first long-term ethnographic study in Aoteroa/New Zealand to track and observe the social, cultural, and musical impacts of these programmes as identified and experienced by Māori and Pasifika young people themselves.

So your focus is on young people? Why did you decide to do that?

Although children are central to Sistema-inspired programmes, a surprisingly small number of researchers take a child-centered approach. The same goes for the policy focus on child poverty and wellbeing in New Zealand, which tends not to include children's perspectives and experiences. Māori and Pasifika children are then doubly marginalised: as members of minority communities overrepresented in areas of urban poverty, and as children whose opinions are not part of scholary and policy conversations. I view children as social actors in their own right and want to draw attention to the roles they play as agents of social change in development processes.

What are you reading at the moment?

A bunch of things:


Dr Lorena Gibson is a lecturer in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research focuses on processes of development and social change, how social actors relate to the future, the politics of hope and agency in vulnerable urban spaces, and creative artistic practices. She blogs occasionally at anthropod.net