Audible sociology

I was recently asked (er, required) to present some of my research to a group of non-experts: executives and interns at an advertising agency, to be exact. Since I was mere days away from signing a contract for a book about music, I designed a talk on the topic geared toward an audience that I imagined would be more interested in the story than the mechanism. Key to this approach is allowing them to hear the music I’m describing, even if the aesthetics are relatively inconsequential to the argument.

At almost the same time, we (the MAC grant group, ALIAS chamber music group, Gabi Frank) were gearing up to hear and record a piece of contemporary classical music that I co-commissioned, using a research grant from my university. Although this grant, and the resulting composition and recording, are likely to afford me absolutely zero direct benefit in my professional life, I embarked on the process because I really enjoy the people involved, am deeply committed to the (gender, race, class, disability) expansion of the canon of contemporary American music, and felt my contribution was a form of (the dread) “public sociology.” [Just put that into a google window, if you’ve never heard the term. The links are too many to mention.]

All this leads me to a little gem PL sent today, one that reminds me that the extension of sociology into the aural realm is close at hand. Field Mic is a site where user-submitted audio tracks are filtered by administrators. Not very exciting, when I write it out, is it? But the current front page features experimental sound work by Alvin Lucier, part of an educational tape on the solar system, and (best of all!) an iPhone audio recording of Bruce Nauman’s “Days” at MoMA. Nauman’s piece was a U.S. submission to the Venice Biennale this year, and I went to hear it when I was in New York last month. The short audio clip on Field Mic captures part of the cacophony pretty well, although not the disorienting feeling I had in the room. I found it to be an extraordinarily moving piece, I have to tell you–the kind that caused me to cycle through a whole set of emotions: joy, sadness, confusion, anxiety.

What I’m driving at is the kind of texture that aural information brings to our understanding of the world is a kind that I don’t think sociology can or should do without. Now that ethnographers are trending toward the disclosure of “subject’s” real names, ethical concerns about identity disclosure using snippets of audio interviews (and ambient or environmental noise) should decline. This opens the door to allow ethnographers and other qualitative sociologists to use audio information in a variety of ways: in teaching and the presentation of research results, but perhaps also embedded into on-line versions of journal articles. Just as folks in advertising are struggling to break through platform-specificity–that is, just as advertisers are seeking ways to integrate their social media (read: facebook, twitter) campaigns with radio and television and print ads–so should sociologists seek to integrate our platforms: the research article, the presentation, the blog, the television/radio interview, and so forth. We can do it because it will help our “public sociology,” or just because it enhances our ability to relay and analyze the world around us.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Audible sociology

  1. Love the idea! In my days before I was a sociologist, I was a journalist. I worked primarily in print but I did some radio. The richness of the “subject’s” voices was indeed thick description. You learned so much about the context through the voice, the cadence, the accent, the pauses, the “indexical expressions.”

    I’m not sure if the jury’s in about anonymity yet, however. I record all my interviews, though I rarely use the audio in the final report. This is mostly because there is no room for the audio but it is also because I’m still a bit leery of exposing my participants.

    Nevertheless, I love the idea.

  2. Great stuff here, and certainly in line with directions that ethnographers working in the fields of folklore/ethnomusicology might/should be taking with regards to online/media-rich publication. The kinds of “information” embedded in audio are often inaccurately or even impossibly articulated in print; actually hearing stuff sometimes makes all the difference! I’m keen to see/hear more about audible sociology/ethnography in general, as I’m moving in this direction with my own research & teaching. Thanks for the post.

  3. Jenn Lena

    John & Sam: I’m glad to have your encouragement. I think a healthy concern about anonymity is certainly important, but I do think it is wise to balance that concern against the value–the “information”–we can only get and convey through sound. Certainly, audio interviews with high status individuals would make anonymity impossible*, but perhaps in almost every other site this is a trivial concern.

    I didn’t cite This American Life in the post, but I do think there’s important policy-relevant social research going on there, and I think its popularity suggests an untapped market for our work, as well as indicating the power of the medium.

    I would also add that there’s some interesting issues that come up once audiences can hear indexical expressions, accents, cadence and the like–people may be less familiar with policing their own stereotypes and preconceptions with audio stimuli–but I think that would be quite interesting, even as it presents certain complications.

    *Interviews with experts in your own field may have the same issue.

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  5. erinmcdonnell

    This reminds me of the longing I sometimes feel for the audio-scape of urban Accra, with its tro-tros calling “circ! circ! circ!” and small girls shrilling “nsu wo ha!” and “Puuure watah” and the beeps and the conversations and the chickens and the occasional goat.

    Also, if we get far enough down the path, we might convince our ethnographically inclined graduate students that some of them could work in a productive fashion for This American Life.

  6. Jenn Lena

    @erinmcdonnell: I feel that nostalgia for Harlem. “Mira! Mira!” and the beeping of trucks backing up.

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