On the margin between "high" culture and "ordinary" everyday life: Social organization of the amateur orchestra and its musicians

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan Borker


Social structure, Music

Subject Categories

Social Psychology and Interaction


Following the tradition of the sociology of art of Howard Becker, this dissertation seeks to explore the social organization of amateur orchestras and the orchestra musicians. Amateur musicians are musicians who play music as an avocation. Although most of them do not get remunerated for their time and effort, playing music with other people is very important in their lives. However, because orchestras composed of purely amateur musicians tend not to measure up to the "high" performance standard, their orchestras tend to be spurned by the audience and also by potential members.

In the first past of the dissertation, the intellectual context for the current study is explored by surveying how various sociologists have discussed issues related to culture and music-making. The second part of the dissertation is an ethnographic study of musical ensembles. Organizational and musical problems encountered by five different musical ensembles are discussed. The data for the second part of the dissertation came from participant observation in amateur classical music ensembles. In the last chapter, an attempt to link the history of individual musicians and the society where they live is made through the content analysis of current popular sources.

An orchestra is a prime example of Durkheimian organic solidarity through the division of labor. For an orchestra to survive, all sections and their players must play well together and strive to play music better. In addition to the usual organizational problems suffered by professional orchestras, amateur orchestras are plagued by member desertion, value conflicts among the members, and public apathy. Amateur classical music organizations are still alive in the US but their existence is precarious and mostly hidden from the public. Today, it would be very unlikely that most communities could maintain purely amateur orchestras for the reasons discussed in this dissertation.


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