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Music Provides Instrumental Twist for Ph.D. Candidate's Research

February 21, 2020
By Hanna Grimm
Duke Graduate School Communications Intern

Band
Ugandan musician Odong Christopher (in red) plays with one of the bands that Duke Ph.D. candidate Matthew Sebastian has been playing with. Teaching music classes and playing with local musicians have allowed Sebastian to form deeper connections with the people he studies. 

After spending nearly a decade studying post-conflict life in northern Uganda, Matthew Sebastian was looking for an NGO that would be comfortable working with him while he studied the effects of humanitarian action on young people and how they navigate the limits and possibilities that intervention creates. While sitting in the meeting room of an NGO in Kampala, he noticed the many guitars, drums, and other instruments lining the walls and asked about them.

He didn’t expect the answer to transform his Ph.D. research.

The NGO had received the musical equipment as a donation from the German Embassy to start a program providing performing arts training in prisons, but there was just one problem: No one at the NGO knew how to play.

Sebastian, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology, has been a drummer his whole life, so he teamed up with a local musician to begin teaching the music classes. Through that unexpected opportunity, he has become a regular and trusted figure for the youths in northern Ugandan prisons, granting him access to areas where it is typically difficult to conduct research.

“Anthropology is all about following breadcrumbs and falling into things that you never planned to work on,” Sebastian said. “Prisons were never the plan, but it certainly transformed the way I was able to do research and obviously my access.”

Sebastian is studying how young adults in northern Uganda are experiencing security and vulnerability in post-conflict life. Northern Uganda experienced a 20-year period of conflict that ravaged the region and drew a large portion of the younger population into combat. Since 2009, Sebastian has been traveling to northern Uganda and working on projects related to how the region has reconciled with its past and used institutionalized memories to tell a particular narrative. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, the Duke University Graduate School, and the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Matthew Sebastian
Matthew Sebastian (right) visiting his friend Ayella Denis
at a children and youth home that Denis runs in Paicho,
Uganda. 

NGOs are interested in Uganda’s young people as they comprise a vast majority of its population (almost 80 percent of Ugandans are under 30), Sebastian said. Struggles with high unemployment and anxiety over idleness, however, this has led to a growing security industry where young people often find employment as guards.

“Majority of inmates are young people, and majority of security guards are youth as well,” Sebastian said. “Interestingly then, we have all these conversations about what it means to securitize youth by youth and the sort of thin line between security and vulnerability or in this case incarceration.”

By teaching in the performing arts program, Sebastian was able to build prolonged relationships with his students. For example, when one of his students was released from prison, Sebastian was able to connect that student with another performing arts group that he works with. This allowed Sebastian to build on his relationship with the student and gain greater insight into his experiences through observing his relationships with family and friends.

“To be able to just go every day and train with a group of young men and women opens up different kinds of relationships with them,” Sebastian said. “I'm not just like a stranger who's coming in to interview them across the table and then they'll never see me again.”

As an anthropologist in the field, Sebastian conducts interviews, holds focus groups, and gathers information through a process he jokingly referred to as “deep hanging out.” This more organic process consists of spending time with subjects doing informal activities. For instance, Sebastian maintains a relationship with a security officer who is also an aspiring musician. He has spent time with this officer while working in recording studios, doing radio appearances, and sharing meals.

“There’s an allure to the way in which we understand the way we can learn things in the world by being there,” Sebastian said. “It’s building relationships and building community in a space that isn’t just sitting down and having a conversation explicitly about someone’s job as a security officer.”