Re-thinking research repertoires: foregrounding sound

On the final afternoon of an intense, three day sociology conference for the NYLON research network (PhD students and faculty from New York, Berlin and London), the two authors ran a workshop on sound and listening. This was something of an experiment on our part – we are both interested in sound in our research and are part of the sound reading group at Goldsmiths. But, as Ari Kelman noted recently, the ‘indeterminacy of the field’ of sound studies (2010:229) means that experimentation is an inevitable part of using sound in research. In this blog post we use the notion of foregrounding sound as a way of intervening into some of the complexities of working with and thinking about sound. We use moments from the sound and listening workshop to explore different understandings of foregrounding sound as variously, a mode of attentiveness or a way of tuning in; as a thing of sociological consequence in itself; and as an embodied and relational experience. We also draw on our experiences of encountering sonic resonance in our own work, and ask how we might think about how to recognise, convey and analyse sound.

Recent interest in sound as methodology and object in the social sciences echoes the ‘discovery’ of visual methods in sociology. As Michael Guggenheim noted recently on the CSISP blog (2013), the aim of visual sociology is to become obsolete; for sociology as a discipline to incorporate visual methodologies as a part of its normal practice. The same could be said for sound studies (or ‘auditory cultures’ as Bull and Back (2003) describe it) – except that we have no equivalent ‘sonic sociology’ as a starting point. Indeed, as Anahid Kassabian notes (2013), comparison with another visual medium, film, is illuminating; film studies is often located in ‘visual cultures’ departments, institutionalising the assumption that in film, the sonic is always subordinate to the visual. This is not by way of arguing that one aspect of sensory sociology is more important than another – quite the opposite: to suggest that the senses work in concert (so to speak).

This is something that became clear from the responses of the participants in our workshop. We began the workshop with a short meditation led by Anna, which shifted our attention more towards the sonic, drawing on Les Back’s concern with ‘modes of attentiveness’ in sociological enquiry (2009). We then asked the group to go outside in threes, and listen for three minutes to the sounds they heard, facing in different directions (thanks to Les for this exercise). We audio-recorded the discussion of this activity that followed. Participants had gone outside in the middle of an early spring rain shower – some had stood outside, some had taken refuge in the student bookshop and café. In attempting to describe what they had heard, members of the group came up with evocative, even beautiful descriptions, carefully trying to portray their experiences:

For me it was incredible how the water and the rain dominated the soundscape, like I feel with everything I heard, the water was involved, like it was people stepping, you know, [off] the stones, stepping into water, into puddles; the cars, you know, with wet tyres – really, I was amazed by this dominance of the water.

This quote makes vivid the experiential intensity of sound, which is inevitably embodied, and conveys one interpretation of ‘foregrounding sound’, that is, paying close attention to it, and perhaps making ‘hearable’ that which is heard but not really listened to. This is foregrounding sound as a form of close attentiveness.

The discussion touched on the wholeness/interconnectedness of sound – the way you never get ‘just sound’ but that sound is connected with vision, experience, knowledge, memory and in powerfully associative ways:

When we were outside listening, I was thinking a lot about the radio. Because I had my eyes closed, and it was, you know, sometimes, you get these sound snippets, like, when they’re doing an interview in a café, and before, they want to get something to put on, like ‘doing an interview in a café’, so you get, you know, the cups – […] and it was exactly like that, so, I was thinking of the radio. So it seems to me it’s so much intertwined with experience. So it’s not – I was not thinking about the little raindrops, I was thinking about the radio.


When we started this exercise, same ambulances passed by, police, or whatever, and so, and then it faded out during these three minutes, but at the beginning I was quite aware of that, and thinking of that, and this reinforcement, this hearing of the traffic, that formed this interesting – and I think it was attention catching, this ambulance sound –

And then your mind catches onto it, hangs on to it –

Yes, exactly, and then this visualising process kicked in, and I saw the ambulance pass by, so to speak.

Foregrounding the interconnectedness or the mediative qualities of sound brought us to a discussion of how to work with sound. We started to talk about what to do with sounds; or what the inclusion of sonic awareness does for our work. Participants were quite clear that they did not want to simply reproduce the sounds they had heard but that sound was about a kind of ‘tuning in’ to another kind of awareness, another resource. However, how to represent this material was at issue. Simply including sound recordings without any analysis we agreed to be problematic, in that it assumes a naturalism to sound; this is instead always a process of abstraction or of translation, so it is important to avoid thinking of sound as ‘pure’ or natural.

Here Michael Guggenheim’s ideas are also useful. In discussing the necessity for the foundation of a new Visual Sociology course at Goldsmiths, Guggenheim suggests that visual sociology is part of a broader project of approaching the sensory in a way which is ‘not documentary but manipulative’ (2013a). The sensory is not brought out as illustrative, reinforcing the assumption of ‘authentic’ reality, but rather attentiveness to analysis of sensory objects and experiences is itself of sociological consequence. Work with sensory foci thus becomes an interrogative, perhaps even disruptive process of transposing sensory experiences (see Guggenheim, 2013b).

One participant seemed to sum up what we were grasping towards in this part of our discussion, describing it as ‘sonic intervention’ that is then ‘brought into the more analytically tractable medium of writing’. Perhaps this can be a good starting point for thinking about putting these ideas into practice. We could ask: is sound without words, therefore, not an analytically tractable medium? What provides the traction?

Another interesting way of foregrounding sound in social research came from a paper by Alexandra Baixinho at the Goldsmiths’ Graduate Festival this May, where she played audio clips from her fieldwork on cruise ship tourism (see audio below). A recording of the creaking of the gangway as the ship moved while docked in port had a haunting, powerful quality to it, seeming to Anna (as a musician) as one of the most expressive sounds she’d ever heard. How can we include these kinds of non-human (and indeed human) sounds in our work? What do they add, other than being hugely evocative? Or is that enough?

Other examples of foregrounding sound in social research show how this can make audible aspects of our research that we might overlook. Take, for example, the pervasive practice of analysing interview transcripts to generate sociological knowledge. This method makes the data easy to get at, less complex, but loses attention to voice and sound in the process. By contrast, Walkerdine et al (2001) took a different methodological approach, listening together several times to their interview recordings, and comparing their responses. This was in the context of a broader approach, drawing on psychoanalytic theory as a methodology, but retaining the focus on the sound of the voice, and their responses as researchers to their participants’ voices.

Foregrounding sound can also draw attention to forms of social complexity which may be more clearly audible than visible. Katherine, in her research on public libraries in Berlin and London, has found experiences of sound highly significant. It is not that public libraries are necessarily quiet places, for frequently they are not, but rather that the shifting sonic atmosphere of the library becomes an indicator of different conceptions of the public good that library spaces represent. Here, people’s inevitably subjective responses to the sounds of others sometimes generate disputes or require mediation by librarians, while at the same time, the busy hum and rumble of a popular local library, housing multiple activities and events, is often used by librarians as a sign of its success. In the public library, levels of sound and quiet are differently understood and valued, and must be constantly negotiated.

Finally, and perhaps most generatively, foregrounding sound can provide a way of analysing affective transmissions and engagements. This might be through the voice, or through the materiality of sound, as Julian Henriques memorably explores in his article on the material, affective and socio-cultural qualities of sound in the dancehall scene in Kingston, Jamaica (2010). Anna’s participants in youth orchestras often talk about the sonic experience of being in the middle of such an awe-inspiring sound; what does this powerful affective-sonic dimension add to the socio-cultural experience of being in these groups? And how does affective transmission occur through sound?

The discussion in our workshop concluded with a call for a more critical attentiveness when discussing sound. Making a link to Raymond Williams’ ‘structures of feeling’ one participant felt that the term ‘structure of the senses’ could be useful, to ask how ‘our sensual experience is structured and enmeshed and entangled with power and subjectivity’. As Kassabian notes (2013:23), sound doesn’t have vision’s ‘complicated’ association since the Enlightenment ‘with science, knowledge, distance and objectivity’ – sound is experienced as embodied, so the illusion of objectivity is much harder to uphold in relation to sound than vision. Using sound in social research therefore inevitably includes ourselves, the researchers, and our bodies as the ‘resonating chamber’ (Jean-Luc Nancy, 2007). Selves and bodies do not provide a neutral space of resonance, however – the sonic is always experienced socially and culturally. By foregrounding sound, then, we can explore the ways sonic experience is always structured, mediated, influenced, and translated.

Thanks to the participants in our workshop at the NYLON conference in March 2013.

Katherine Robinson is a PhD candidate in sociology at LSE and Anna Bull is a PhD candidate in sociology at Goldsmiths College. 


The Gangway Song

(2013, Alexandra Baixinho)

This piece departs from a found field sound, recorded last April in the port of Lisbon, by the Rocha do Conde d’Óbidos Cruise Terminal.

Through the use of sound and image my intent is to better convey the specific urban atmosphere and material context in which this sound is generated.  Here, the gangway acts as an oscillating interface between the aquatic environment, the ship, and the quay.

The technical equipment used was the following:  Zoom H4n digital sound recorder, together with a HTDZ HT-81 Uni-Directional Microphone + Nikon D3100 (for the video). 


Back, L., 2009. Global Attentiveness and the Sociological Ear. Sociological Research Online 14.
Bull, M., Back, L., 2003. The auditory culture reader. Berg.
Guggenheim, M., 2013a. What Was Visual Sociology? | CSISP Online.
Guggenheim, M., 2013b. The Media of Sociology. Tight or Loose Translations. British Journal of Sociology.
Henriques, J., 2010. The Vibrations of Affect and their Propagation on a Night Out on Kingston’s Dancehall Scene. Body & Society 16, 57–89.
Kassabian, A., 2013. Ubiquitous listening affect, attention, and distributed subjectivity. University of California Press.
Kelman, A.Y., 2010. Rethinking the Soundscape: A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Sound Studies. The Senses and Society 5, 212–234.
Nancy, J.-L., 2007. Listening. Fordham Univ Press.
Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H., Melody, J., 2001. Growing up girl: psychosocial explorations of gender and class. New York University Press.

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