Anthropology Sound Ethnography
Kimberly Powell, Walter Gershon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0248


Often referred to as sonic ethnography, sound ethnography is the methodological, theoretical, epistemological, and ontological study of the sonic and its relationship to society, culture, and ecology. Sounds have, in fact, always been part of ethnographies, as sensations, understandings, artistic nonartistic expressions, recordings, and film/video and multimedia as technologies developed alongside ethnography and other methodologies. However, despite many ethnographic forms that attend to constructions of sound, such as ethnomusicology, sonic ethnography is a relatively new and still emerging methodology. The study of sound is multidisciplinary, informed by anthropology; sociology; ethnomusicology; acoustics; history; philosophy; sociology; medical studies; architecture; cultural geography; natural and physical sciences; performance and media studies; cultural studies; visual, performing, and mixed-media arts; and education research. Due to such interdisciplinarity, sound ethnography varies widely in terms of methods, theories, and practices. Sound ethnographies also differ in the purposes and conceptualizations of sound and study. They need not focus on organized sounds such as talk and music. They might also focus on emergent or sonic phenomena such as echoes and reverberations; ambient, found, or naturally occurring sounds in builtscapes or landscapes; music; sonic technologies; or even silence. Regardless of focus, sound ethnographers tend to examine the sonic in relation to social and/or environmental structures and patterns—not just how sound reflects such phenomena but, importantly, how it produces them. While ethnography has principally been a literary genre in the humanities and a qualitative research genre in the social sciences, a sound ethnography might be both conducted and presented in multiple ways, including writing, recording, composition, film, mixed media, art installation, and performance.

General Overviews

Sound ethnographies investigate existing acoustics, material productions, and consumption of the sonic. Ethnography is the principal methodology for conducting sociocultural research in the fields of anthropology and sociology, and there are extensive publications on the topic. Sound ethnography, however, is a relatively new and still emerging methodology. Sound ethnography has been informed by many disciplinary fields that encompass multiple methodological approaches and have extended the concept of ethnography itself. To date, there is no principal text concerning sound ethnography. Instead, theories, methods, research, and issues employed in sound ethnography can be found in texts across a variety of fields, reflecting its interdisciplinarity. Works that explicitly deal with ethnography as a methodology for the study of sound include the following: Feld and Brenneis 2004; Kreshti 2009; and Samuels, et al. 2010; all of which call for an anthropology of sound. Drever 2002 and Gershon 2013 examine sound compositions for and as ethnography. Makegon and Neumann 2009 focuses on audio documentary as ethnography. Finally, Faudree 2012 focuses on the connection of music and language as a means for addressing a holistic analytic frame for ethnography.

  • Drever, John Levack. 2002. Soundscape composition: The convergence of ethnography and acousmatic music. Organised Sound 7:21–27.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1355771802001048

    Drever calls the intersection of sound and ethnography “soundscape composition” and “the convergence of ethnography and acousmatic music,” arguing that “soundscape composition” rather than sound or sonic ethnography is a more effective concept.

  • Faudree, P. 2012. Music, language, and texts: Sound and semiotic ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 41:519–536.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-092611-145851

    This review of research focuses on the relation between language and music, providing the reader with an overview of contemporary scholarship in this area. Faudree argues for a semiotic approach to language and music alongside the auditory turn in anthropology, and dissolves the boundary between language and music via a semiotic framework in ethnography to promote a more holistic analysis of all of the dimensions of sound.

  • Feld, Steven, and Donald Brenneis. 2004. Doing anthropology in sound. American Ethnologist 31.4: 461–474.

    DOI: 10.1525/ae.2004.31.4.461

    In this article, an interview between Brenneis and Feld, Feld calls for an anthropology of sound as both “data” and as ethnographic representation through field recordings. Feld argues that sound recording should be considered as a creative and analytic technology for mediating ethnographic fieldwork in the same way that writing is considered as a creative and analytic tool. Feld also discusses his concept of “acoustemology” for ethnography: one’s sonic way of knowing the world.

  • Gershon, Walter S. 2013. Resounding science: A sonic ethnography of an urban fifth grade classroom. Journal of Sonic Studies 4.1.

    This article contains an overview of sonic ethnography as a methodology and its positionality within ethnographic traditions, as well as discussion about similarities to and differences from other sounded methodologies, such as sound art. Gershon discusses a sonic ethnography he conducted in an elementary classroom to document what children could express about science through song and talk.

  • Kreshti, Roshanak. 2009. Acoustigraphy: Soundscape as ethnographic field. Anthropology News 50.4: 15–19.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1556-3502.2009.50415.x

    A short but informative overview of sound in anthropology; Kreshti names key texts that have contributed to the field of sound anthropology and conceives of two terms: aural positionality, to describe considerations of race and gender in the ethnographer’s perspective and position in the construction of sonic representation; and acoustigraphy, to describe her practice of acoustic ethnography. She also discusses some of her methods in the field.

  • Makegon, Daniel, and Mark Neumann. 2009. Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781452226590

    This book notably explores audio documentary as a research method. The authors write of the potential for radio and associated practices of audio documentary to be methodologically utilized like ethnography, arguing that this format might increase the potential for researchers to reach academic and popular audiences. This book is paired with a companion website.

  • Samuels, David W., Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello. 2010. Soundscapes: Toward a sounded anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:329–345.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-022510-132230

    Providing an overview and a critique of sound in, as, and for anthropology, the authors review genealogies as well as emerging ethnographic work on sound and sound recording pertaining to the concept of soundscape for anthropology. The article contains many excellent examples, resources, and publications that offer a diverse foundation for those interested in sound ethnography.

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