Sensory Ethnography and Storytelling with the Sounds of Voices: Methods, Ethics and Accessibility
In contemporary anthropology, nearly all of us work with sound – usually oral interviews – but its quality as such is often taken for granted. Audio files of interviews are often quickly transcribed or qualitatively coded into text, then analyzed and written into books. And the soundscapes of our fieldwork sites are often taken for granted as well. Their meanings and textures as sounds are thus erased. The small sounds of voices and places often invoke an intimacy that anthropologists may attempt to render in text through “thick description” (Geertz 1973) and hopefully also “sincerity” (Jackson 2005), drawing from hermeneutic and poetic approaches in literary studies (Clifford and Marcus 1986, Behar and Gordon 1995).
Meanwhile, a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship on sound studies foregrounds sound as “a modality of knowing and being in the world,” of creating a sense of place or a narrative (Feld 2000). Performance studies scholars have also provided many contributions towards thinking about “the hegemony of textuality” (Conquergood 2002: 147) and, conversely, the “repertoire” of manifestations of knowledge and memory that exist outside the written, institutionalized archive (Taylor 2003). Needless to say, ontologies, storytelling, memories, and place- and identity- making are canonical topics of study in anthropology. As Steven Feld, an anthropologist and one of the leading theorists of sound studies, has discussed, there are many possibilities in “doing ethnography through sound—listening, recording, editing, and representation” that will hopefully one day be more than just “mostly about words” (Feld and Brenneis 2004: 461, 471). Further, as anthropologist and sound studies theorist, Roshanak Kheshti, has argued: “considering sound through the critical genealogy of feminist or race theory forces you to move beyond sound as an object and think of sound instead as an analytic or a hermeneutical tool for understanding inequality…” and the “social worlds” that scholars study (Brooks and Kheshti 2011: 330).
I am interested in approaches to methods, ethics and accessibility when working with the sounds of voices that cross-cut anthropology – specifically sensory ethnography, or ethnographic methods that foreground the senses – sound studies (and sound arts), and digital humanities. Anthropologists are not that common in the realm of digital humanities. However, many of us, one could argue, do projects that could be construed as “digital humanities,” that is: “digital methods of research that engage humanities topics in their materials and/or interpret the results of digital tools with a humanities lens” (Lexicon of DH Workshop, The Graduate Center Digital Initiatives, tinyurl.com/lexicondh). And the thing with DH is, once we (scholars) start paying more acute attention to the ways in which our research is digital this can open up new questions and also new methods for doing what it is that we do, in terms of both research and pedagogy. This is particularly true, I suggest, for sound studies – given the importance of digital tools and platforms for recording, mixing, sharing and listening to audio.
Yet, new methods, digital tools and projects emerging through DH and internet research in general open up an array of rather new ethical and accessibility concerns (see e.g. Barnes 2006, Markham and Buchanon 2012). What constitutes personhood or “human subjects” on the internet? What data is or should be “public”? When should consent protocols be required? Can images or audio files of people and their voices bely anonymity? Who has access to make digital projects or to engage them, particularly in relation to differences of class, ability, and language fluency? How is the internet – its structure, its users, its algorithms – racialized and gendered (e.g. McPherson 2012, Noble 2018)? In what ways may some DH projects follow a practice of extraction without reciprocity? Indeed, anthropologists wrestle a lot with that last question in particular when extracting stories of individuals that then advance our careers, while many DH-ers may be, e.g., web scraping.
This short paper presentation will examine the possibilities of cross-cutting methodological approaches to anthropology, sound studies and arts, and digital humanities, specifically when recording and sharing the sounds of peoples’ as a mode of storytelling. I will focus on oral interviews in particular. Driven by the aforementioned anthropological and interdisciplinary concerns, this paper will discuss the interplays of method and theory when cross-cutting these approaches, and issues of ethics and accessibility when recording and sharing sound. This includes being wary of institutional compliance with Institutional Review Boards but also following a feminist ethics beyond compliance, that, for example, foregrounds consent as not a one-time signature but reiterated, negotiated and subject to change (see Davis and Craven 2016). I will also consider various levels of intrusiveness and impact that the recording and sharing of the sounds – especially the sounds of peoples’ voices – may have, and the potential roles of shared sounds within larger networks of listeners and what their availability may foreclose (e.g. Sugarman 1997, Brooks and Kheshti 2011, Kunreuther 2014, Kheshti 2015). Lastly, I will discuss digital modalities for sharing research with sound and their (limited) possibilities for storytelling, specifically for doing and sharing anthropological and other research in a more accessible form – with the exceptions structured by access to technology, limited hearing ability and translatability across languages and contexts. I will highlight free and open-source resources, such as sound archives and editing and hosting technologies, as well as low-cost Do-It-Yourself (DIY) microphones and speakers.
While websites are often great platforms for sharing oral history projects and other sounds, I will also discuss examples of other modalities for sharing sounds, such as exhibits and events, as well as digital platforms for scholarly publishing (e.g. Manifold). I will include a brief survey of various free online platforms that seem to have high potential for use in scholarship and pedagogy. These include: the SoundCloud online streaming platform, the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer in coordination with Omeka, podcasting via iTunes, StoryMaps for sharing audio on a map, and Chirbit for sharing audio on social media or embedding audio on a website. I will also discuss examples for the in-person sharing of sounds during, for example, an exhibit or class, including a brief survey of different kinds of speakers and headphones and different ways of transferring pre-recorded or live sounds to them, as well as spatial considerations for sharing sound. For example, placing numerous speakers inside an enclosed space, such as a tent, may allow for a focused listening space that is still shared and not as individuated as when using headphones (an idea I learned from sound artist Grant Smith of Reveil Radio in London). While I do not plan to conduct a full comparative analysis of these platforms, I will briefly discuss what I find to be some of openings and limitations of each.
In sum, this presentation aims to bridge together a number of themes: sound studies, oral histories, ethics, accessibility, and modalities for sharing sounds. I emphasize the intention that motivates my attempt to bridge these various themes: In my opinion, when recording and sharing human voices the researcher must always be vigilant in their ethical considerations (beyond IRB approval) at every step of the research design and practice, and then the sharing of these sounds is what makes their collection most worthwhile and to do so requires considerations of accessibility and modalities and ethics for such sharing.
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