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CDD Dissertation Fellow Spotlight: Caroline Koons

Caroline Koons is one of two dissertation fellows in the Center for Democratic Deliberation this year. In this post, she shares more about her research on the relationship between musical harmony and cultural harmony — and its connections to dissent and civic life.

Caroline Koons is one of two dissertation fellows in the Center for Democratic Deliberation this year. In this post, she shares more about her research on the relationship between musical harmony and cultural harmony — and its connections to dissent and civic live.

What is your driving research question?

How does a sense of civic harmony build from both the musical and social relationship between individuals over time to form a coherent identity or multiple identities without suppressing the dissonance and dissent necessary for social progress?

How did you first get interested in your research project? 

As with most projects, a long winding road led me to this dissertation. I've been trained in music and I was really interested in how sound could be persuasive. Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, I noticed more and more how prevalent musical terms popped up in discourse. Particularly the calls for racial harmony or restoring harmony both appealed to me and confused me at the same. Harmony in a cultural sense is often depicted as something stable over time, but the musical iterations of harmony require both variety and time. How then, do we reconcile these two very different versions of harmony? Where does the unpleasantness of living in a society come into play when composing a sense of civic harmony? How do dissent and dissonance fit into a sense of civic harmony? And finally, how does civic harmony change over time?

Have you had to learn anything new or challenging over the course of your work? 

The hardest thing I've had to learn so far in my dissertation research is that not all periods of American history and voices within American civic life are preserved equally. Most of my dissertation requires archival research, but if nothing was saved or put into an official archive then it makes it very difficult to find texts written by dissenting voices. As I'm learning, people don't like to be made uncomfortable, and they sure don't save items or texts that present a different view from their own. The more dissenting the voice, the less likely it is to be preserved. When you're studying dissent and harmony though, you're relying on an archive of various discourses and sometimes that means looking for something that doesn't exist anymore.

How does your work apply to issues of democratic deliberation? What problems related to the substance or quality of civic discourse do you think it could address? 

The component of my dissertation that is in most collaboration with the Center for Democratic Deliberation is the focus on civic life and dissenting voices. The very idea of deliberation requires a wide variety of opinions, perspectives, and people voicing their opinions and experiences hopefully with the aim of improving civic life for all. Harmony and deliberation share that in common: the need for a plenitude of voices to speak and sing out in hope of changing the future for the better. Hearing dissonance, or that with which you disagree, can be difficult but is a necessary part of living in a civil society. Because harmony requires difference, this dissertation highlights the thin line between harmony, dissent, and the identities on both sides being cast as productive or detrimental to the health of democracy. I'm trying to construct a history of American civic harmony to make sense of the rhetorical history on which we draw still today to inform how we relate to one another.

What are your post-dissertation plans? What do you hope to do next with your research? 

I'm hoping to eventually turn this dissertation into a book. Since I started researching this project I found a lot of material from the early 20th century and the immigration boom that further complicates and illustrates the shifts in harmony and dissent between the Civil War (chapter 2 of the dissertation) and 1960s civil rights movement (chapter 3 of the dissertation). I think this book has a lot to offer both for the reliance on musical texts for rhetorical study as well as the trajectory on which I'm building for each chapter that helps understand our current political moment.