Universität Bielefeld

© Universität Bielefeld

Colonial structures in Bielefeld University's music programme

By Elena Passavant


When thinking about decolonizing educational research, the first steps are to think about the background and structures of colonialism, colonial logics in education as well as in educational research and ways of changing the current situation. In the book 'Decolonizing Educational Research' Leigh Patel "pursued a critique of coloniality in its manifestation in educational research as well as mapping terrain to how educational research has been, in some instances, and can be more answerable to learning and knowledge" (Patel, 2016, p.7). Discussing her book and thinking about logics of colonialism at the University, many aspects can be seen, named and discussed as coloniality manifests in the system of universities, the topics taught and the structures shaping the research at universities.

Using PhotoVoice in this context gives us, as students in educational science, the possibility to try a different way of research, to reflect our position in university and in educational science and to strengthen a critical consciousness. A decolonial approach tries to recognize and disturb coloniality and address material changes (see Patel, 2016, p.7) by acknowledging that "learning and knowledge are never placeless" (Patel, 2016, p.61), but situated in specific places, dynamics and relations entangled with material conditions (see Patel, 2016, p. 61f, 66). Decolonial researcher are answerable in "how their work speaks to, with, and against other entities" (Patel, 2016, p. 73). PhotoVoice therefore has the goal to "help those who are often unheard gain a voice" (Rabinowitz, n.d.). It "is a process in which people ? usually those with limited power due to poverty, language barriers, race, class, ethnicity, gender, culture, or other circumstances - use video and/or photo images to capture aspects of their environment and experiences and share them with others" (Rabinowitz, n.d.).

When I started to take photos and to think about topics, which need a voice, there was this one topic stuck on my mind - why does the choir I sing in, not get any financial support by the University? Of course, I am aware that this is not a question of discrimination or oppression, but it is a circumstance of limited power and interrelates with the colonial structures at university.
So how is this topic an entry point to talk about structures of colonialism in the University?

Picture 1: Timetable

It is the formal education system itself where coloniality manifests. The whole structure of school and university is built upon a Eurocentric view of necessary subjects, essential knowledge and the ways to prove it. As Patel says, "formal schooling has had far more to do with the project of coloniality than it has with the learning, teaching and co-existence" (Patel, 2016, p.4). Probably everyone would agree, as also shown in the picture of a typical timetable, that there are subjects in school more important than others, where grades are essential to graduate successfully from school. The role of the schooling system and education is not about learning in its original sense, it is "the way to 'level the playing field'" (Patel, 2016, p.16). If someone has good grades in tests in so called main subjects, the education is seen as successful, no matter how much is learned in fact. "Learning has become disturbingly conflated with the achievement within schools" (Patel, 2016, p.75). The colonial structure of our education system has "truncated learning to be measurable achievement2 (Patel, 2016 p.76).

Picture 2: Poster of the University-Choir

Another logic of colonialism manifesting in the University is the division of complex and interdependent knowledge into separate fields. This is not to criticize expert knowledge, which is a necessary part of understanding complex topics. It is to show that "compartmentalizing complex wholes into disparate pieces facilitates the naming and ordering of those pieces and parts in order to have dominion over them" (Patel, 2016, p.19). There is an idea of preferred and more important knowledge, re-inscribed through the ongoing and protected system (see Patel, 2016, p.5, 34). Music, as it is seen as not necessary for a career in a colonial and capitalistic society, has a difficult position. Music is seen as a fun, free-time activity, nice to do and listen to, nice to relax. One short look on the timetable (picture 1) shows the value of music in the schooling system. In University music courses are only seen as an additional offer - so there is only little money spend on music projects. But even in the category of music there is an order - some music is worth more than others. Listening to the right kind of music is seen as sign of excellent taste. In a traditional academic context, it is the music of the established composers - 'Die großen Werke' - worth to be learned, presented and to be heard. Thus, the 'Dreiklang' of the University's 'rich music tradition' (see Website of the University Bielefeld) gets at least little support - administrative and financially - from the University.

Picture 3: Not the University-Choir

Thinking about the role of music, making music, music instruments and music lessons another colonial logic gets obvious - in a colonial society knowledge is intertwined with material impacts (see Patel, 2016, p.x, 12). It is about money - money to get an instrument, money to pay a music teacher, money, money, money. This makes music education only available for some. But making music can be so easy - for example everyone has a voice to sing and hands to clap.

In 2009 a group of students thought exactly that: We love to sing and to make music. But we want to choose our own music, have our own structure. They started a democratic choir with a small group of people, singing the music they wanted to sing. And the more people heard about that choir the more students and nonstudents came to sing together. The choir grew into a flourishing part of the music program at the University Bielefeld, singing for example at semester openings or the "Nacht der Klänge". There is only one problem: money to pay a conductor. The current conductor did all the work in the last couple of years with a lot of passion for this project and without being paid - but he is leaving. To keep the choir alive, a new Choir conductor is needed and therefore unfortunately money to pay a new choir conductor. To keep the open, democratic, diverse and voluntary structure of the choir, welcoming everyone interested in singing, support of the university would be needed to overcome administrative barriers and financing challenges - but requests got rejected.


I want to point out, that this PhotoVoice is not a critique towards the University-choir. Each and every additional education possibility is absolutely necessary for a flourishing, diverse, multifarious culture of living together.
Being in a position of a privileged person thinking about the context of colonialism at university is a tricky task. Focusing on one specific topic, I am involved in, made me aware how deep colonial structures are rooted in an academic context.


  • Patel, Leigh (2016): Decolonizing Educational Research: from ownership to answerability. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Rabinowitz, Phil (no date): Community Tool Box. Chapter 3. Assessing Community Needs and Resources. Section 20. Implementing Photovoice in Your Community. Univerisity of Kansas. Retrieved from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-and-resources/photovoice/main.
  • Website of the University of Bielefeld: http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/kultur/musik/
  • www.pinduc.de