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Ferguson studies how reggae transmits Jamaican values across cultures


“Get up. Stand up: Stand up for your rights!” (Marley & Tosh, 1973)

To exemplify the themes of reggae, a genre of music that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s, Dr. Gail Ferguson played this Bob Marley song.

“This song embodies something important about reggae music. You can hear the values people associate with this type of music. These values include the ideas of peace and love but also empowerment, evaluating your situation, making the decision to stand up for yourself, and to continue to struggle for what’s due to you,” Ferguson explained. 

Ferguson, an assistant professor in the Department of Human & Community Development (HCD), is studying how reggae music functions as a vehicle for “remote acculturation,” a term she coined to define what happens psychologically when young people are exposed to far away cultures in which they have never lived.

Growing up in Jamaica, Ferguson experienced “Americanization” due to the influx of American tourists, goods, and media. She later began scholarly work on remote acculturation by investigating “Americanization” of behaviors, values, and identity of some Jamaican youth on the island.

“I’ve previously studied how young people get exposed to remote cultures, specifically teenagers in Jamaica, and how this can impact their development and cause them to take on different values and behaviors. So I became curious how the values of Jamaica might be transmitted to other countries and if other cultures could become ‘Jamaican-ized’ by listening to reggae music and learning about the issues important to Jamaicans and the responses Jamaicans have had,” she said.  

To find answers, Ferguson teamed up with a German colleague, Dr. Diana Boer, a cross-cultural music psychologist at the Goethe University Frankfurt, who studies how the values of college students relate to their musical preferences. Boer possessed a large amount of data on the values and musical preferences of university students (ages 18-20) in 12 countries across four continents, but she had no data from Jamaica.

Ferguson, therefore, applied for and received a seed grant from the ACES Office of International Programs (OIP) to complete data collection among Jamaican university students.

“It is important to know how Jamaicans think about reggae and what values they associate with this music since it is the birthplace of reggae,” she said. 

After analyzing the data, Ferguson and Boer found that found that college students in Jamaica and the other countries who liked reggae tended to hold two particular sets of values from Schwartz’s 1992 model (

“The two values that tend to be more associated with enjoying reggae are “openness to change” (including self-direction and stimulation) and “self-enhancement” (including pleasure, achievement, and power),” she said. These values seem to align with the fundamental message of self-empowerment communicated by reggae music.

Ferguson next looked at values in relation to geographical proximity. She wanted to know if the values of reggae lovers are more similar to Jamaicans’ values if they are living in a country that’s closer to Jamaica. She did not find that to be true. 

“Regardless how far away you live from Jamaica you could still have these same values if you love reggae. This is very interesting to me because I am interested in transmitting cultures across distances,” Ferguson said. 

While geographic distance was not a significant predictor of cultural transmittal, Ferguson did find that cultural similarities are relevant.

“The empowering reggae message was more attractive in moderately collectivistic cultures like Jamaica’s, such as in Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines, and Mexico, than it was in individualistic cultures, such as America, United Kingdom, and New Zealand, or highly collectivist Asian cultures. So, one interpretation is that being more culturally similar allows more accurate transmittal of Jamaican values through the music,” she concluded.

Ferguson looks forward to presenting her findings at an international conference this summer.

During her trip to Jamaica, Ferguson also explored the possibility of future collaborations, specifically a study tour, with Jamaica’s leading university, the University of the West Indies. ACES currently has no official connection with Jamaica.

“I met with collaborators at the University’s Caribbean Child Research Center where I look forward to bringing our HCD students in the foreseeable future to learn about and assist with their research projects. The students could also participate in my Americanization studies on the island.”

News Writer: Leslie Myrick

Involvement Type: Faculty Involvement
Dates Active: 2014-
Faculty Involved: Gail Ferguson
Topic Areas: