January 23, 2015

Punk Rock Professors

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

It’s been said that “music soothes the savage beast.” Although that may be true, I think music can also have the opposite effect: it can turn the calm individual into a maelstrom of frenetic energy (think Animal from the Muppets). That’s certainly been my recent experience with music.

Questionable authorities

For over 10 years, I’ve been part of a punk rock cover band called Questionable Authorities. There are five of us in the band: a biologist, a psychologist, and three sociologists. We are all tenured, well-respected professors at SUNY New Paltz who do typical professor things such as teach and mentor students, write academic books and articles, and chair departments and campus committees. But we also play punk rock music together. We even have an official band video of our punk version of the SUNY New Paltz alma matter (set to the music of The Dead Kennedy’s Holiday in Cambodia). We are still waiting for this video to go viral (or at least get more than 200 views—hint, hint).


It’s taken me awhile to feel comfortable calling ourselves a band since none of us are real musicians. For years, I thought of us as a pseudo-band, hovering quite a few levels below a basement band—more like a crawl-space-gathering of professors with musical instruments. But after playing together for so many years (longer than The Beatles), we have certainly honed our craft. At first, when people (i.e., close friends) would hear us they would say politely: “I think I actually recognize that song.” After a few years of practicing, the common review from one of our gigs was: “you sound better than I expected.” And now, when we play in bars around campus people regularly offer the enthusiastic and unsolicited, “You totally rock!”

When we practice and perform, I generally try to take off my sociological lenses and give in to the right side of my brain. But as anyone who has ever studied sociology knows, it’s largely impossible to negate your sociological imagination once it takes hold in your mind. And as a symbolic interactionist, I observe and am aware of too many interesting social processes when I’m in my role as a punk rocker—especially while playing in a loud and rowdy bar in the late hours of the night.

The predilection for recognizing sociological themes in the world of music should not be surprising. The sociology of music, or sociomusicology as some term it, is a burgeoning sub-field within sociology. As William Roy and Timothy Dowd point out in their review essay, “What is Sociological about Music?”, music has long been of interest to sociologists dating back to Max Weber, W.E.B. DuBois, Alfred Schutz, and Howard Becker. By studying the field of music in all of its manifestations, sociologists become aware of a multitude of social process from the micro-sociological to the macro-sociological.

To demonstrate the relevance of music for sociologists, Roy and Dowd focus on four questions that helps us develop a sociological imagination for music. I found these questions useful not only for understanding the merits of studying music sociologically but also for making sense of my status as a Questionable Authority (in more ways than one!).

The first question they raise is: What is music, sociologically speaking? Most of us have probably never considered a sociological definition of music. Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise that such a definition is based around social constructivism such that the distinction between music and not music is “shaped by, and shapes, social arrangements and cultural assumptions.” Music exists in and arises out of specific social and cultural contexts. In this sense, it is not too surprising that five middle-aged, white professors, all from the northeast, end up playing punk rock covers of the bands they grew up listening to (The Clash, The Ramones, The Violent Femmes, The Rolling Stones).

Next, Roy and Dowd ask: How do individuals and groups use music? This is a quintessential sociological question and gets at the functional dimension of music or any activity. Music, like most activities, is used by people to “give meaning to themselves and their world” and it “informs people, quite profoundly, about who they are.” My bandmates and I all entered academia to gain the identity of a professor; none of us entered academia aspiring be a musician--much less a punk rocker. However, as we have progressed from mediocre to respectable, and as we have been invited to play around town and on campus more regularly, our identities—both personal (avowed) and social (imputed)—have shifted accordingly.

Following this, Roy and Down then consider: How is the collective production of music made possible? As a social construct that is used to create meaning for self and others, music is produced through a “deeply social” process. The production of music reflects our interdependence to the extent that we rely on “a long-established system of tonality,” musical technologies, and normative musical conventions. When Questionable Authorities works on an arrangement of a classic song, we depend on all of these inputs as well as considerable discussion and debate. The end product of this social process is our unique version of the song which, as one reviewer said dryly, is often “quicker than usual.”

Lastly, Roy and Dow ask: How does music relate to broader social distinctions, especially class, race, and gender? This question is another classic of sociology and anyone who has ever considered music sociologically should be able to provide some responses. Like all social activities, music does not occur in a vacuum; rather, it “enters into social relations and helps to constitute fundamental distinctions on a micro-and macro-level.” Such processes are evident in our regular end-of-semester graduation gig at a local bar. Although nearly 30% of our student body consists of students of color, the people who come out to our shows, as well as those who regularly consume punk rock music, are mostly white.


At the end of their review article, Roy and Dowd make the bold claim that, “the distinctive qualities of music” might even provide us with some of the most profound non-music-related sociological lessons. Thinking about my 10 plus years of being in Questionable Authorities, it is hard for me to pinpoint the biggest non-music sociological lesson I have learned—there have been so many. I have encountered role theory and role conflict as I balance my professor role with my band member role; I have considered primary and secondary groups as I weigh my relationship to my bandmates, colleagues, and groupies (all three of them—our spouses); and I have wondered about the racial demographics and social distinctions of our audience as noted above.

I grew up playing the drums and although I never wanted to be a professional musician drumming was an enjoyable hobby for me. In graduate school I sold my old drum set as it was just collecting dust in my parent’s basement and I needed the money. When some of my colleagues found out I played the drums as a kid, they urged me to get a drum set so we could start an all-professor rock band. Who knew that more than 10 years later Questionable Authorities would still be rocking out—not only making loud and somewhat cacophonous music but also providing me with valuable insights into the social world.

If you are interested in the psychology perspective of punk rock professors, check out the blog of my bandmate, Glenn “The Caveman” Geher, who writes a blog for Psychology Today. Here is Glenn’s blog on punk rock professors, “Evolved to Rock: Understanding Questionable Authorities - the All-Professor Rock Band.”


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