Social distinction and reflexivity in creative labour: composers and the demands of composition

  • Michael Whitten

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Drawing upon 8 semi-structured interviews with composers on the island of Ireland, this thesis examines debates about the relationship between reflexivity and social change. This thesis contributes to these debates by developing and applying a nuanced account of reflexivity to an empirically underexplored population in Irish sociology.

This thesis argues against the view that reflexivity is identical to the capacity for transformative social action. Instead, by drawing upon the insights of the genealogical method, recognition theory, and a neo-pragmatist reading of role theory, this thesis suggests that a better way to think about reflexivity is in terms of genealogy. On this view, reflexivity is considered to be a practical and situated capacity actors can exercise to compare and juxtapose their own circumstances with those of others, both past and present. In doing so, they can come to consider how things could be otherwise.

This thesis then explores this theoretical argument with reference to a case study of composers working on the island of Ireland. The reason why this population was selected to explore the theoretical claims made in this thesis is on account of the rapid social change Irish art music and Irish society have both experienced in recent decades. As such, this thesis was interested in exploring the degree to which rapid change, both within Ireland and Irish art music, have sparked the reflexive capacities of composers.

By exploring the various demands and pressures composers in Ireland experience while occupying the role, what this thesis discovers is that the relationship between reflexivity and social change is more complex than first anticipated. Not only did the composers I talked to exhibit a degree of reflexivity about a whole range of issues, but the reflexivity they did demonstrate was also deeply shaped by their immediate concerns and interests in significant ways. This suggests, then, that the relationship between reflexivity and social change is not as straightforward as other accounts suggest.

Overall, this thesis adds some much-needed theoretical nuance to the debates on the relationship between reflexivity and social change by providing a case study of a as yet underexplored population in Irish sociology. In doing so, it can move the conversation in this area of study forward.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 July 2028.

Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNI Department of Finance
SupervisorDavid Robb (Supervisor) & Cillian McBride (Supervisor)

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