Our Ethnographic Ear: Using sound as an ethnographic tool and product

Our megalopoli are deafening: who would put up with this hellish din if we didn’t simply expect that with a group comes a racket? Being part of one means not hearing it. The better integrated you are, the less you notice it; the more you suffer from it, the less well-integrated you are. Shouts, car-horns, whistles, engines, cries, brawls, stereotypes, quarrels, conferences, assemblies, elections, debates, dialectics, acclamations, wars, bombardments, there is nothing new under the sun, there is no news that is not news of yet another racket. Noise is what defines the social. Each is as powerful as the other, each multiplies as quickly as the other, it is as difficult to integrate into one as into the other (107).
Michel Serres, 2008 
The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (emphasis mine)

If ethnography is both a method anthropologists use and the product of our work, then sound/noise is an important element of giving any audience of a sense of the places we write about. Yet, while we experience sounds profoundly while collecting data, audio records are often secondary or absent entirely from the products of our research. In Michel Serres’ work on sensory perception, he states, “Noise resolves itself into information” (107). The task I undertake here is to arrange raw sound recordings of the noises of city life into ethnographic information.

I conduct fieldwork in urban India, and sounds are an integral part of learning about and experiencing Indian cities. I present here an alternative ethnography of three Indian cities through short sound clips as a way to prime the aural sense to an environment and experience human behavior and activity through sound. In Delhi, I walked through a famously crowded and busy market area just before sundown, passing cloth shops and moving out of the way to accommodate two-wheeled vehicles making their way slowly down the narrow paths. In Pune, I took a clip from an afternoon stroll at the largest university in the city. I passed street sweepers and students casually walking to the mess halls for lunch. Also in Pune, I made a recording from a late morning ride through a busy part of the city in an auto-rickshaw, or the three-wheeled taxi-like transportation commonly used by locals. And finally, I have a recording from a street near the Dalai Lama temple in McLeod Ganj, near the city of Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama and a considerable Tibetan population lives in India.

I intentionally leave these clips with this limited context for readers/listeners to experience the sounds and sounds alone. I encourage you to transport your mind into the setting through the sound rather than through any visual prompt or additional linguistic description. Through hearing and listening to Indian city soundscapes I intend to make ethnographic detail an audio-sensory experience and I hope to add a layer of texture to ethnography in India. As I infer from Michel Serres, noise is social and the social is noisy. The sounds of my field site are another defining detail of what it means to live and take part of daily life in India.

Sound Clip 1: Chandni Chowk, Delhi

Sound Clip 2: Pune University, Pune, Maharashtra

Sound Clip 3: McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh

Sound Clip 4: Pune, Maharashtra


Works cited:

Serres, Michel. 2008. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. Continuum.

2 thoughts on “Our Ethnographic Ear: Using sound as an ethnographic tool and product

  1. Nice post! See also Feld and Brenneis 2004 “Doing Anthropology in Sound” American Ethnologist 31(4); and Samuels et al (2010) “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology” Annual Review of Anthropology 39


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