Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Audio Ethnographies

Social science methodology ought to consist of a flexible series of “ways of changing what we are currently doing” rather than a fixed list of possible modes of analysis. -Andrew Abbott, 2001

Contrary to academic protocol, I begin this article by positioning myself as a non-expert. Indeed, in many ways I’m writing on a topic I know nothing about. Well… not nothing. It’s not as though this is a subject about which I’ve never thought. Quite the opposite, I’ve reflected deeply about the ideas presented in this essay. Rather, my non-expertise speaks to the fact that I’m writing about something I’m not even sure exists.

So, when the Editress of our new (and very cool) Sociology Newsmag invited me to contribute a piece to the upcoming newsletter on the seemingly vague topic of “methods,” I immediately knew what she was suggesting, yet nonetheless avoided her invitation for days. How was I to write a piece on audio ethnographic methods when I wasn’t convinced such a method was real?

It all started when our Editress and I had the privilege of taking Dr. Patricia Hill Collins’ class, Sociology of Knowledge. In that class, I centered my intellectual attention at the intersection of knowledge production, power and methodology. I was particularly interested in placing the idea of audio ethnography – that is, how sociologists might use sounds to create analyses about the social world – in dialogue with scholarship on the power to create, document and legitimate knowledge.

My seminar paper explored why, given the methodological precedent (albeit limited) for an explicit audio approach to social scientific research (e.g., see the work of Hurston and Boder), why have such methods received so little attention within the disciplines? I argue that the types of knowledge conducive to audio ethnographic documentation are often subjugated knowledges, and the producers of these knowledges are often intellectuals who do not fit into dominant or elite paradigms.

Yet, despite my own argument, I still push myself for further clarificationWhat is audio ethnography? For the moment, I define audio ethnography in relation to and separate from audio documentary (for an example of audio documentary, think National Pubic Radio’s This American Life).

Similar to the audio documentary, I define audio ethnography as an approach to storytelling that uses sounds to convey information; these sounds can include voices, music, ambient sounds, and any other type of audible information that can be recorded. However, I argue that audio ethnography differs from the audio documentary in its social scientific systematic approach to studying human, social and cultural phenomena. As a social scientific method (i.e., technique), audio ethnography, unlike audio documentary, is associated with a methodological tradition, which engages a broader theoretical context, philosophical rationale for method-related decisions, critical application of individual methods, and ontological or epistemological questions.

But again, I return to more question-asking: How would I go about doing audio ethnographic fieldwork? What makes audio ethnography unique from more traditional ethnography? Doesn’t most ethnography already contain an audio component? And, what does a sociological audio ethnographic research project look (or sound) like?

To help guide me through such questions, I turn to other thinkers who are contemplating similar ideas, as well as individual projects that

might articulate with an audio ethnographic tradition. I haven’t settled on any answers but, taking advice from the forever-brilliant C. Wright Mills, let me share a folder from my file. The following sources, scholars, collections of fieldnotes, ethnographic projects and methodological techniques help me formulate my thoughts around the contours of an audio ethnographic method.

Audio Ethnography:


· Quiet American

· Studs Terkel: Conversations with America

· Radio Diaries

· Association for Recorded Sound Collections

· Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University

· Crossing the BLVD

· See also the work of Zora Neale Hurston and David Boder, cited above


·Audrey Sprenger, Harvard University, Sociology

Methods of Audio Ethnography and Personal Audio Field Notes

· Eliot Bates, University of Maryland, Ethnomusicology

· Karen Nakamura, Yale University, Anthropology


· Digital Media Project, Catherine Braun, Ben McCorkle, Amie Wolf, Ohio State University, English

· Sarah Baker, Griffith University, Arts, Languages and Criminology

Auto-audio ethnography

· John Szwed, Yale and Columbia, Anthropology

Syllabus: The Anthropology of Sound

· Claudia Engel and Miyako Inoue, Stanford, Anthropology

Interview re: City and Sounds course

Tips & Techniques

· Become a radio diarist

· Audacity

· Sound portraits

· Radio College

Zora Neale Hurston worked for the WPA, documenting folklife and folklore throughout the Gulf States with an audio recorder. She is pictured here collecting music from Gabriel Brown and Rochelle French. Eatonvilee, Folrida. Photographed in June 1935. Source: Florida Memory Project.

Even after surveying these sources, I still don’t entirely know what I mean by audio ethnography, but these works give me confidence that there’s something there that is in fact real... or has the potential for becoming real. Importantly for me, this project stems from a belief that the decisions we make around our research methods are always political. In our efforts to document new or test existing knowledges, we tend to rely upon a limited set of methodological techniques. As social scientists, we must consider the implications of such decisions and ask ourselves whether, by retracing the same fractal paths, do we fail to study and thereby legitimate alternative bodies of knowledge (Abbott 2001)? As graduate students and researchers-in-training, it is vital to remember the potential – however fleeting it might feel – to conduct social scientific research in new, different, revised, inspired, and creative ways.

*** Click here to see one innovative approach to social scientific inquiry and documentation. Appearing in Fast Capitalism’s special issue on the sociological significance of biography (Issue 6.1), this project also represents my first published audio production. Notably, sociologist Dr. Audrey Sprenger, co-curator of this special issue, first introduced me to the idea of audio ethnography; ever since I took her class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ten years ago, Audrey’s approach to sociology has haunted me, in every sociological sense of the word.

Valerie Chepp

1 comment:

  1. So excellent, Valerie. Thanks for this article. I'm really interested in seeing where you end up with audio ethnography.


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