Actors in music education: comparative ethnography between three nucleous inspired by the El Sistema programme in Venezuela, Brazil and Portugal / Atores da educação musical

Publication Type:



Sociology, Universidade do Minho, Volume PhD, Braga, p.528 (2016)


Reproduced in more than 60 countries nowadays, El Sistema, a Venezuelan orchestral program, is a worldwide reference in the use of musical art as a tool for personal development and social education among populations living in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. After forty years of intensive work, the numbers of teachers and students are massive. Yet, there is a gap in social science research on what is really happening in Venezuela and in the countries that have been inspired by it. This research intends to fill in this gap by applying ethnographic methodologies under a sociological eye. For that, the author focus the research on the basic unit of El Sistema – the nucleous. A nucleous is a physical space, like a school, where social actors (teachers, students, principals, parents…) get together for daily music classes, following and methods of El Sistema. The lessons are free and the instruments are lent to the students. The starting questions this thesis asks are: how do actions progress in a nucleous and what is the role of each of its actors? To answer them, is suggested a comparative analysis between three nucleous in three countries: Venezuela, Brazil and Portugal. In the last two, musical education programs inspired by El Sistema were chosen: Neojiba in Brazil and Orquestra Geração in Portugal. In each program, one nucleous as a unit of analysis was chosen. It is, therefore, a multi-sited research, in which are applied qualitative methodologies: ethnographic observation, semi-structured interviews and focus-groups. The comparative analysis is not normative. Instead, it is a way to complexify and provoke the researcher’s thinking using the differences and the similarities between the three nucleous. In the fields of research, ethnography is central, carried out daily at a very intense pace, aimed at capturing and illustrating the role of each actor in the nucleous. The aim is to understand which individual and collective actions are developed in each context. The heart of this thesis is to reveal as many empirical aspects of the núcleous as possible, through diverse complementary angles. To analyse the actions in the nucleous, the study is extended by incorporating social, economical and political contexts surrounding them. The factors that seem external also have impacted on the actions of each actor and, in consequence, on the results obtained through musical education in the nucleous. The thesis reveals how each nucleous is peculiar and alive, constantly acting and reacting to the various surrounding social settings. Institutional mechanisms to reproduce El Sistema are not enough. The human aspect, in its complexities, is fundamental for the sustainable cohesion amongst all the actors in a nucleous. Only then can symphonic music become a tool as well as a goal to be reached. The fieldwork exposes the role of “discontinuity” in the student’s actions and of “contrast” between adjacent social realities. Both result from unstable contexts but, paradoxically, the most challenging ones can be very positive and create strong attachments between a nucleous and its actors. 

- Context of the research: To which question does the research answer? 

The main question is: How do actions progress in a nucleous inspired the Orchestra El Sistema programme, and what is the role of each of its actors from a sociological and comparative frame of analysis? 

- Method(s) used 

A comparative analysis is developed starting from three case studies in Venezuela, Brazil and Portugal. The researcher made a multi-sited comparative ethnography, appliyng participant observation, semi-structured interviews and guiding some focus groups. 

- How is arts education understood? (e.g. learning in, through or about arts?) 

Arts education is understood as a simultaneous process of learning in, through and about the arts. 

- How is interculturality understood in this study?  (e.g. multi-, inter-, transcultural approaches) 

The study does not focus on interculturality but the question appears indirectly. We could say that a transcultural approach would be the best definition. 

- Invested ressources (time, money, people...) 

The study was developed in 3 years, but the author has been researching this subject in other contexts in the last 9 years of his career. 

- Results (which new insights?)

The main insights of this research are: 

1. The identified research gap in the international literature is filled with this thesis written by Sarrouy, as it results from an in-depth research, an ethnography. Andrea Creech from the Institute of Education, University of London, earlier mentioned the need of developing research in the area of arts and culture education by doing ethnographic studies. 

2. What the author calls "convention" of the collective artistic action of El Sistema, Neojiba and Orquestra Geração.This convention involves: first, that music is an instrument for personal and social change; second, the idea of "human before all else"; third, the adjustment to diverse social and personal contexts ( improvise in order to solve); 

3. This piece of work puts sociology and anthropology into dialogue following the tradition of the Chicago School. This dialogue has a correspondence in terms of theoretical thought but also at an empirical level, being translated into a "voyage" between scales of observation and analysis, where Sarrouy approaches the object of study from micro, macro and meso levels. We highlight the fact that the reader can access all the needed quantitative data to understand arts education at "El Sistema" orchestras in a broad sense and also to think about the three specific cases. 

4. Nucleous of the orchestra El Sistema Programme are very important for the individuals, especially for the youngs and children, but also for its families and the community as a whole as they are tool for developing creativity and awareness. However, these nucleous do not replace the responsible authorities for the social and economic problems of these deprivileged territories. 

5. This thesis is a very good contribution to processes of cultural mediation through arts education because it provides us with in-depth scientific knowledge, non-ideological though, which can serve to think about social intervention/mediation in practice. 

In conclusion, this piece of research is an excellent contribution to the broader thinking of arts and culture education in the field, especially in socially deprivilegied urban areas.