Ethnographic Soundings

Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.
– Jaques Attali, Noise (1985: 3)

The transient and intangible nature of sound presents particular challenges to the ethnographic study of ‘the sonic’. This is further intensified by the apparent lack of analytical tools that sufficiently account for the ways in which sounds are produced and experienced within social settings and everyday life. The analysis of sounds as ‘texts’ is predicated upon ethnocentric definitions and assumptions because such an approach conceals the social relationships and practices that sound constitutes and which constitute it. Therefore, we should begin from the premise that sound expresses first and foremost a social practice and process.

But how are we to make sense of and employ the idea that society and culture happen ‘in sound’ (e.g. Seeger 1987), in late-capitalist environments where sounds often seem ‘to do little more than fill a silence left by something else’ (Stokes 1994: 2)? Yet it would be impossible to imagine our everyday lives without the presence of sound. Not only does sound provide the background or the soundtrack to our busy lives, but it is an intrinsic dimension of the way we live and conduct ourselves in different contexts. This becomes particularly evident in sound’s capacity to inform, transform, evoke, construct, contest and negotiate a sense of place and thus to locate subjects in space. As such, sound, space and place should be seen as interconnected. Therefore, our initial premise should be complemented by the conviction that sound, in both urban and rural environments, also conveys a spatial practice.

Sounds also ‘move’ us. By this, I do not only mean that sonic reverberations can elicit an emotional response. As a sensuous stimulus, sound unleashes impulses that cannot be disentangled from a plurosensory environment but, as any listener knows, sonic vibrations engage and envelop our bodies in ways unmatched by any other entity. Sound organizes bodies and orchestrates movement. It demands attention: the body cannot escape it because sound vibrates and penetrates it – the physicality of sound affects bodies. Thus, sound also emerges as a fundamentally bodily practice.

This shows that we should go beyond a visual paradigm pervading textual approaches to sound. Several scholars have embraced the argument for the ethnocentric character and inadequate properties of vision in the acquisition of anthropological knowledge, and they have proceeded to postulate an ‘acoustemology’ (Feld 1996), or to affirm the need for ‘active listening’ (Hirschkind 2006) and a ‘sounded anthropology’ (Samuels et al 2010). This also requires a shift from a focus upon what sounds ‘mean’ to a concern with what they do. Whether we listen with our minds or our bodies, sound can never only ‘reflect’.

Evangelos Chrysagis


Attali, J. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music (trans.) B. Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.

Feld, S. 1996. Waterfalls of Song: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea. In Senses of Place (eds) S. Feld & K.H. Basso, 91-136. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Hirschkind, C. 2006. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Samuels, D.W., L. Meintjes, A.M. Ochoa & T. Porcello 2010. Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 39, 329-345.

Seeger, A. 1987. Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stokes, M. 1994. Introduction: Ethnicity, Identity and Music. In Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place (ed.) M. Stokes, 1-28. Oxford: Berg.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s