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Into the key of law: transposing musical improvisation. The case of child protection in Northern Ireland

1 June 2014 - 1 September 2014

PI/s in Exeter: Dr Sara Ramshaw

Funding awarded: £ 13,613

Sponsor(s): AHRC

About the research

This interdisciplinary collaboration, the first of its kind, is made possible through a shared conception of improvisation between lawyer and law lecturer, Dr Sara Ramshaw, and sound artist, improviser and lecturer, Dr Paul Stapleton. Many
myths currently exist in society regarding the nature of improvisation. This project seeks to debunk its conceptualisation as purely spontaneous and unplanned, or simply about individual self-expression. Improvisation is not, in other words,
unfettered freedom, but is instead made up of several structural elements, such as harmony, melody, rhythm and time. Moreover, accounts regarding the individualistic nature of improvisation fail to account for the ways in which improvisation is about 'community building'. In the words of Fischlin and Heble, improvisation is 'about fostering new ways of thinking about, and participating in, human relationships' (Fischlin and Heble 2005: 23).

Although improvisation is most often associated with the musical realm - for example, jazz music - critical improvisational research is currently being pursued across a range of arts and humanities disciplines, such as anthropology, philosophy, cultural studies and law, demonstrating the need to consider improvisation not simply as a musical form, but as a complex 'social practice', one that mediates transcultural exchanges and produces new conceptions of identity, community and justice.

The global significance of critical improvisational research is evidenced by the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP) project, of which the PI is a former Postdoctoral Fellow and current Research Associate. ICASP is a seven-year, $4-million international community/university research scheme, funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's (SSHRC) Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (MCRI) programme. Bringing together an international research team from eighteen universities, including McGill University, University of Cambridge, Columbia University and Harvard University, amongst others, ICASP explores musical improvisation as a model for social change and plays a leading role in defining a new field of interdisciplinary research to shape political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action. This project will build on these insights, along with the established links the PI has with ICASP, while also developing further international associations and collaborations.

One of the key tenets of critical improvisational studies is the emancipatory potential of improvisation. Self-consciously engaging with tradition and precedent, improvisation enables resistance to past oppression and injustice and opens up
possibilities for new ways of being together in society, both locally and at the global level.

This project begins with the premise that it is possible to transpose improvisational 'language', that is, its discourses, techniques and pedagogies, from the musical to the legal realm. However, what remains unclear is where this language may be welcomed or resisted by legal actors and institutions. Focusing on child protection law, as an area that has recently been criticised for being too formalised and overly-bureaucratic (see, for example, the Munro Review), the investigators seek to determine whether, by educating legal decision-makers about the structures of improvisation, they might themselves become better improvisers (through their participation in improvisation workshops and cross-disciplinary conversations with improvising musicians), thereby leading to more creative and courageous legal decision-making in child protection cases.

The impact of honing the improvisational skills of legal professionals is potentially groundbreaking, influencing not only how decisions are made in child protection cases, but also the content of judicial training and legal education, thereby ultimately impacting all areas of legal decision-making.

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Arts and Humanities Research Council