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Sounded Methodology in Anthropology

Justine Conte

MA Student, York University

Sound is not currently considered to be a primary tool used in fieldwork, either with live people or in archives, nor is it considered one of the primary tools an anthropologist uses when conducting ethnography. The study of history in anthropology is a nuanced endeavour, both because of the work required to come into dialogue with an archive, as well as the importance of linking the past to the present in a meaningful way. The archive provides a tangible link from past to present, but it can be said that the confined nature of documents lack the conditions that allow for anthropologists to fully engage with culture. To combat this, both in the archive and in live field sites, anthropologists seek to move past visual representation alone. They search for connections in the field that lead to broader or deeper questions about the conditions from which the representations in question arise. A common methodological tactic is for the research to consider their own biases, as well as other contextual information that may be lacking. This entails considering who or what may intentionally or unintentionally not be represented. This essay wishes to take this line of inquiry further, to consider the possibility of sensual biases in the field. Primarily, it discusses how sound has not been given great consideration when conducting ethnography, and how a sounded methodology may reveal different affective responses than visual stimuli. The non-visual senses have been historically stigmatized in anthropology (and in academia more broadly) and this has been cited as a problem by several academics. They suggest instead that the senses are not just passive tools that allow for reactions to phenomena, but are interactive tools which assist in understanding experience (Howes 2011:437). This paper considers a methodology that incorporates a sounded approach to data collection, in so far as “the project of hearing cultures begs the question of what is worth hearing” (Carter 2004:59). Just as with more traditional approaches to the field, thinking about ethnography in relation to sound also assists the researcher in asking what is being heard, and what is not. While a conversation may be had with visual documents in the archive and while factual and even affectual information may be successfully transmitted through visual representation, the senses with which an ethnographer uses to engage with and understand culture will impact what is ethnographically “seen” or in this case, “heard”.

The visual holds a great deal of importance traditionally in anthropology. One of the most common methodological tools of ethnography is participant observation. Here, notes taken in the field are typically written, and ethnographies are also formally presented in the visual form of a document. This prioritization of the visual began in the 19th century when the senses were ‘colonized’ and hierarchized in regards to ideas of racialized conceptions of ‘perfection’ and evolutionary progress. Thiscan be seen in the ideas of natural historian, Lorenz Oken for whom “the European ‘eye-man’ was at the top of the scale, followed by the Asian ‘ear-man’, the Native American ‘nose-man’, the Australian ‘tongue-man’, and, at the bottom, the African ‘skin-man’” (Howes 2011:438). Howes states that the senses were used to determine primitiveness based on the amount of energy each race spent on ‘lesser levels’ of sensory experience. Europeans were at the top of his list and so naturally, sight was given precedence over the other senses. This led to the understanding and ordering of cultures as though they were grammatical languages. More importantly, one can argue that it led to the understanding ofcultures as ‘texts’ and the function of anthropologists as the primary writers of these texts(440). Howes makes clear the problem of this approach for ethnography, “Not all rituals are designed to ‘say something of something’… rather, their meaning resides in their doing, and somatization (knowledge of the body) may be emphasized to the exclusion of verbalization” (440).

Nancy Rose Hunt points to the need to problematize the prioritization of the visual in the article, “An Acoustic Register: Rape and Repetition in Congo” (2008). She argues that the visual is over-represented and unquestioned as being the “primary mode of perceiving the past” (Hunt 2008:43). The article discusses the horrors experienced by civilians in Congo at the hands of soldiers, and discusses the affective aspects of these interactions. Sound plays a significant role in these interactions, the subtleties of which may not be grasped if ethnographers do not “push beyond the shock of the photographic” (48), and seek to document these more nuanced sensory interactions that may not be fully captured through sight or photography alone. Sound produces different meanings in different social settings, and to fully appreciate the implications of these meanings, an alteration in the methods of ethnographic research is needed. The body should not be understood as simply an “instrument of cultural reception”, but rather as a site of cultural agency (Bendix 2000:34). There is an ability for people to utilize sound in everyday life and to use sound as a vehicle for increasing affect.

In discussing Herder’s nationalistic observations of Hebrew poetry, Regina Bendix discusses the “pleasures of the ear” and the ability of the “voices of the folk” to create a sensual experience amongst the listeners of various performances. The ability of these performances to “make the scalp tingle, the spine shiver, the pulse increase. The pleasures and displeasures of the ear feed both body and mind, and evoke a complex mixture of physiological, emotional, and reasoned responses” (37). While acoustic experience is embodied, it is also awash in social significance and relevance. Sound assists in producing affect, and this is demonstrated by Hunt’s discussion of a soldier who hits a child because he is laughing (Hunt 2008:50). The sound of laughter produces a different affective response in the soldier than if the child had been silent, and this interaction could not be fully appreciated through visual documentation alone. Helmreich, discussing Charles Hirschkind’s study of sermons being transmitted via cassette tape to religious members in contemporary Egypt also demonstrates the power of sound in increasing affect. The men listen to the recorded sermons in order to obtain a more pious, “moral physiology”, acquired through the practice of listening exercises (Helmreich 2007:626).

Hunt calls for an ‘acoustic register’ that accounts for the affective tones present in laughing, crying, whispering, singing, or even the sounds that result from an individual’s action. “In demonstrating a sensory, acoustic mode of reading the archive, I have insisted that the debris to be signaled and reappropriated should not be photographic. We should avoid repeating the tenacity of the visual and the sense of shock that it reproduces. Rather, parsing the archives means listening for images and sounds in the eye of memory.” (Hunt 2008:58). Hunt states that reading the archives is an act of ‘sorting through the debris’ and looking for repetitions in order to tether the past to the present, and the form in which the archive is presented has an effect on the types of debris that can be found (59). The affects produced through the sounded interactions of people and communities bring new and more complex sets of information to the ethnographic endeavour. Of course, sound devices may be used in formal interviews or to record a song or statement, but the actual sound as a form is not analyzed or considered ethnographically.

“Hearing cultures” is a project that began over a century ago with the invention of “electro-acoustic sound-recording technology”, but the fact that anthropologists have been slow to recognize or utilize this mode of archivization suggests that even though anthropologists may be hearing cultures, they may not be listening to them (Carter 2004:43). When anthropologists did begin engaging with sound and recording, their ethnographic efforts were largely disregarded by a broader audience because the resulting recordings were not considered to be artistic. They were of poor quality and had a “largely archival and preservationist attitude to sound” which did not include artistically aural representation as valid ethnographic arguments, and also limited the possibility of ethnographically produced sound to be considered art (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, Porcello 2010:334- 335). Due to the historical biases connecting vision and authority, working with sound became difficult for ethnographers. Instead, the focus came to rest on the tools that produce sound or the symbolic meaning that the sound represents.

In her call to a revision of methodological approaches to ethnographic interaction with sound, Bendix states that traditional studies of sound, ethnographic studies of festivals is her example, focus more on the construction of the instruments or costumes or the symbolism of the sounds, but the actual sound itself is not as widely analyzed in relation to the individuals producing it. The traditional bias of vision’s authority may have made researchers loathe to engage with or even to recognize other senses as being worthy of engaging with. “Yet the noise itself and its effects on those who make and hear it remain elusive. It was generally presumed that what was ‘noise’ to the ear of the researcher was also noise to the practitioners” (Bendix 2000:41). There may also have been a more practical motivation for structural researchers looking for social order to over look sound. The visual is more easily able to contain and convey social order.

In line with the 19th century’s hierarchization of the senses also came the denial of the senses by scholarship (Bendix 2000:37). Sensory experience came to be a more prominently interior experience, not to be shared exteriorly. While vision was still concerned with exterior surfaces and objectivity, hearing came to be associated with subjectivity. The experience of seeing the world came to a associated with removing oneself from the world and hearing was associated with becoming more deeply immersed in one’s surroundings (Helmreich 2007:626). Because of this, Carter states that hearing may come to be seen as a ‘neutral project’ wherein the sounds made and heard by individuals are nothing more than self representation. The problem with this idea, Carter continues, is that it assumes a preexisting ‘cultural grammar’, or a unitary set of structuring logics ordering a culture as a solidified ojbect, that the communities producing or receiving the sounds are ‘deaf’ because of the self reflexive nature of what is being heard (Carter 2004:58). Instead, Carter promotes the idea that hearing is an act of communication. The act of hearing is a point of reference for interaction and a way to orient oneself to others, or to one’s surroundings. All bodies in an area are implicated in producing and reacting to sound, and therefore by attuning oneself to sound, a fuller picture of the field may be achieved. He contends that his model of methodological listening holds researchers accountable to the fact they are bodily present in and aurally entangled with the field. It is through recognizing this attachment that an attunement to the ambiguous transferences between listeners and speakers in the field can be achieved, and further, to then notice where there are silences and what those silences produce (62). Sensing, and specifically hearing, creates an affective creation of the self that is not readily visible, but by pushing beyond the “shock of the photographic”, as Hunt suggests, and listening to the sounds that produce selves, it may be easier to identify voices that are not highlighted by an authoritative or hegemonic voice. However, while this is a useful reminder when conducting research in the field, it may be difficult for researchers to use sound in this way during the analysis or in the process of completing an ethnography because of sound’s ephemeral quality.

One of the problems a researcher faces when dealing with sound in the field is that without a sense of ending, it is not located between silences. Rather, auditory space produces potentially unknown an unknowable sounds that are durational in nature and must somehow be isolated as being significant (Carter 2004:59). A listener must find order in an aural setting, must identify specific sounds to become points of orientation, because a ‘natural’ soundscape is an anarchic collective of many actors acting independently of each other. The sounds of a bird calling or wind rustling through leaves or a man coughing are not scheduled or dependent on some pre-organized time structure, are perhaps not even premeditated at all, and yet these sounds help to produce the cacophony of a soundscape. These factors also make sound very dependent on location. A soundscape calls for anthropologists to consider the “encultured nature of sound”, how and why it is produced, how researchers are inclined to think about or capture certian sounds, and what sounds means to and for certain spaces and contexts; how those spaces are constructed to facilitate the creation of sounds (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, Porcello 2010:330). The auditory conditions of a place are unique to that area and to that time in which the sounds occur. The sounded experience, in this way, creates a space (Carter 2004:51, Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, Porcello 2010:337).

In his article, “No dead air: The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening” (2005), Michael Bull discusses how the use of iPod technology allows for the personal creation of space through the curation of sound. Bull states that sound technologies such as iPods are used to fill the spaces ‘in between’ where a person is coming from and where they are going, and at the same time structuring the space they are occupying to reflect personal affects (Bull 2005:344). An individual is able to become more meditative and focused on the self by cancelling out provided, ‘natural’ soundscapes in order to create a personalized orientation to the space he or she is occupying. This is most effectively done by attempting to curate one’s mood through the process of selecting the music or other auditory experience provided by an iPod (348). “iPods are used both as a mundane accompaniment to the everyday and as a way of aestheticizing and controlling that very experience. In doing so the iPod reorganizes the user’s relation to space and place. Sound colonizes the listener but is also used to actively recreate and refigure the spaces of experience. Through the power of sound the world becomes intimate, known, and possessed” (350). This is an example of a direct relationship between sound, affect, and space. It can be argued that all sound as it is perceived in space is curated on some level, either through intentional sounds that are made or through which sounds an individual chooses to listen to, but this places emphasis on the idea that sound is a large factor in one’s relationship to space.

Passively encountering sound in relation to spatial construction is a way that one may come into contact with space as it exists before the presence of the incoming individual. Yet, personal and collective interactions with sound reception and production can also be very active encounters. One can use sound to alter a perceived reality. Radio personalities create and use a ‘radio voice’ to obscure the self (Carter 2004:56). Thus, in terms of listening, sound technologies may also be used to create relational space.

The produced nature of sound in film also exposes sound’s connection to affect and space. A film may be considered as a primarily visual medium, however, sound is an essential aspect of producing and presenting a film. The complex layering of dialogue, music, sound effects anchors viewers experience in the film and has an influence over emotions felt by the audience (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, Porcello 2010:334). Other archival tools, such as recording devices, may be used to capture a soundscape, but audio recordings cannot be disassociated from the temporal conditions from which they arise. These recordings are also durational in nature, unlike visual objects that may be gazed upon for extended periods of time, therefore, unlike their visual counterparts in the archive, auditory objects retain a hieghtened sense of temopality despite thei ability to be replayed (338).

This tie to the conditions of their recording gives sound recordings a stronger historicity that may not be as strongly felt in visual representations of past events. Sound is a historical actor in produced radio recordings, as it is a marker of historicity: the ‘hiss’ of old recordings are intentionally kept in as background noise to provide a reminder of the dislocation of time (Carter 2004:58). This quality of sound that allows for fleeting moments of contact with a past condition echoes the ties that sound has to increased affect (Bendix 2000, Hunt 2008, Howes 2011). A sounded experience is more strongly felt as a means of a personal, subjective experience; however, one of the objectives of ethnography is to thematically represent a culture by focusing in on one aspect of a social experience. In conducting fieldwork, it becomes necessary to develop tools that are able to parse through the wide range auditory subject matter.

Visual stimuli are constructed in such a way that makes it easier to showcase already solidified norms or conventional ideas held by the creator or perpetuator of the media. Unlike the visual, “the sensual processes facilitated by the ear are a great deal less subject to immediate social ordering than are other, more visible and hence more controllable sensual experiences such as touch or taste” (Bendix 2000:40). The sounds that are heard in a setting are not the first aspects of a situation that are considered, and therefore it is possible to more easily find disjuncture in sound than by using another sense. To identify meaning as sound however, hearing cultures becomes less important than listening to cultures. Unlike hearing, listening values ambiguity, “recognizing it as a communicational mechanism for creating new symbols and word senses that might eventually become widely adopted” (Carter 2004:44). Carter suggests a methodological strategy of “mislistening” as a way to reimagine conceptualizations of interacting with aural spaces. He suggests that instead of attempting to focus in on the sounds that a researcher is predisposed to seek out, one should instead focus on the noises that may not have been immediately recognizable, or to begin by listening to the “silences”. Active mislistening as an approach to the field suggests that all sounds and silences are to be questioned and considered (62). There is a difference between the associations of hearing and listening, where listening is a more engaged approach to the field.

He discusses this by distinguishing between hearing devices and listening devices. Hearing devices are tools that allows one to be exposed to a broader experience outside of one’s own self or capabilities. Take for example a hearing aid, which allows the user to experience all sounds from an external source, the user is using this technology to passively receive sound from the surrounding area. Listening devices, on the other hand, do not imbue the same helpfully receptive purpose. They may instead be understood to have a more actively selective purpose, intentionally seeking out specific information, and are therefore potential threats. Carter gives the example of an authoritative presence using listening devices to spy on a population in order to ensure that a revolt does not take place. Participating in “echolocative rituals” involved in the process of relating to others is distressing to modern Westerners because it suggests a loss of individual agency (49). Ethnographers may also use listening devices, though perhaps not for the same assumed devious purposes that a governing body would. The use of a listening device to an ethnographer is that it does the work of capturing the recognized sounds that the researcher has identified as being of significance to a project. A recording does the work of removing a sound from it’s originating conditions, “epistemologically purifying” the sound, but at the same time also sustaining the reminder of its origination. Sound recording shifts the way in which memory, time, and place may be felt by removing the element of “face-to-face and mediated communication” present in other technological interventions of sound like the telephone. (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, Porcello 2010:330). Sound recordings are useful in the archive because sound reaches beyond the factual or visually symbolic information that is curated for the eye. The linkages of the auditory to space and place make audio recordings more capable of capturing the ‘feel’ of a place than are documents or photographs. Audio recordings are used by scientists as externalized memory or an ‘auxiliary brain’ (Helmreich 2007:627). While the visual may capture the representational or organizational aspects of a people or place, the auditory is more successful in recording the affects and retaining a sense of temporality. Auditory experiences, whether recorded or experienced live, are ambiguous interactions however, and it becomes important to develop a way to methodologically engage with sound on a scholarly level if one is to use sound in ethnography.

Various calls to an auditory methodology have been made by the scholars presented in this paper thus far. Hunt with a focus on using a sensory approach to the archive; Bendix and Carter with the design of incorporating the auditory into anthropological study on a broader scale by expanding on how to more critically engage with sound through models of listening. These models echo the methodological approach suggested by Helmreich in his article, “An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography”(2007), which provides the metaphor of transduction as a way of interacting with sound. Helmreich’s article documents his ethnography in a submarine, and he uses the technology that the submarine uses to sonarily sense objects underwater with sound, to explain how anthropologists may also traverse a state where one is surrounded and enveloped by sounds by using a similar method of engagement. Anthropologists immerse themselves in the field, but do not immediately question the conditions that have created or crossed the spatial boundaries that are in place (Helmreich 2007:631). Transduction as a method is proposed as a way of recognizing trends that are not immediately obvious.

"Transductive ethnography would be a mode of attention that also asks how definitions of subjects and objects, and field emerge in material relations that cannot be modelled in advance… More expansively, I suggest that a transductive ear can help to audit the boundaries, to listen for how subjects, objects, and presences- at various scales- are made” (632)"

Just as a submarine enters into the aqueous field and uses sound technology to gain its bearings, Helmreich suggests that ethnographers use the senses, specifically sound, to help gain an understanding of how boundaries and selves are created.

Early attempts to deal with sound ethnographically came from ethnologists in rainforest settings who found that the sounds they had recorded blurred the lines between what was definitively nature and culture. The soundscape was deeply social and symbolic, and how those sounds were determined as being meaningful or significant led the researchers to focus on an idea of the soundscape as being co-produced (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, Porcello 2010:336). The body should not be understood as simply a tool for aural reception, but instead as actively participating with- creating and being created by- the surrounding aural environment. As selves emerge at different boundaries depending on where meaning is made to materialize (Helmreich 2007:633), it becomes important to develop tools that allow researchers to both recognize and even work within the liminal spaces of identity creation. To think of ethnography as transduction and ethnographers as transducers (633), helps ethnographers to begin sorting through the sensorial fog of the field site. By questioning sensory experience encountered in the field as one would question a statement or critical theory, a richer understanding of fieldwork can emerge and assist in a fuller ethnographic representation.

In entering into a conversation regarding how to methodologically approach the field, taking up the call for a more attentive, sensorial approach to culture is necessary. Attending to sound allows for a researcher to question what is being noticed and what is not, what is ‘worth’ noticing and what is not. Sound is an essential aspect of being fully attuned to and immersed in the field and assists in the understanding of human life. By using a sounded methodology, an ethnographer is able to better identify how, where, or why boundaries exist.

Works Cited

Bendix, Regina. 2000. “The Pleasures of the Ear: Toward an Ethnography of Listening.” Cultural Analysis. 2000, 1: 33-50.

Bull, Michael. 2005. “No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening.” Leisure Studies, October 24 (4):343–355.

Carter, Paul. 2004. “Ambiguous Traces, Mishearing, and Auditory Space.” In Hearing Cultures Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity. Ed. Veit Erlmann. Berg. Oxford. 43-64.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2007. “An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography.” American Ethnologist. 34 (4):621-641.

Howes, David. 2011. “The Senses: Polysensorality.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment. Ed. Frances E. Mascia-Lees. Wiley-Blackwell. Oxford. 435-450.

Hunt, Nancy Rose. 2008. "An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition." Cultural Anthropology. 23(2): 220–253.

Samuels, David, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello. 2010. “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 2010.39:329–45.

Meet the Author

Justine Conte is a MA student at York University, contact her here.

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