Sound and social research: Orality to aurality

Sound in the social sciences is mainly an object of study articulated as the words of interviewees and typically transcribed as text. However, words and the sonic environment they are part of may not be simply reducible to written concepts. They are performative and engage modes of listening which imbricate the senses and may be usefully approached by other practical mean which involve making recordings and playing recordings back. The essence of the method therefore is: Listening, Recording and Playing back. 

Working in this way can address questions about:

  1. The use of language in the conduct of everyday life
  2. The relationship between perceptions of the environment and social and political formations
  3. The relationship between technology and the self
  4. The bodily basis of hearing

Experts/users at Manchester


My current research primarily deals with the political ecology and cultural history of domestic and military aircraft noise in a multi-regional context. It is a continuation of fieldwork, sound and film productions carried out over the past three years which focused originally on US military bases in Okinawa and has expanded to the Japanese domestic airport at Narita, Tokyo and to airbases, museums and indigenous communities in North America. There are two projects:

  1. Air Pressure: aircraft noise and perceptions of the environment. (2010-2012), with London College of the Arts and Kyoto University – Principal investigator of interdisciplinary team with Dr Angus Carlyle (LCA) and Prof Hiramatsu (JSPS). Funder: Wellcome Trust Arts Awards
  2. Sounds of Freedom: an investigation of the role of aircraft noise in defining notions of community in Okinawa, Japan. (2008-2011), with Kyoto University – Joint project with Prof Hiramatsu (Asian and African Area Studies Division). Funder: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science & British Academy Awards

My collaboration with Professor Hiramatsu has led to a further funded project in a region – Laos – that extends the approach we have developed together to an institutional context with global reach, addressing the concerns that UNESCO has for the identification and preservation of intangible cultural heritage.

  1. Quantitative and Qualitative Impacts on the Sonic Environment; Toward the Soundscape Design of Luangprabang (world heritage city), Laos PDR. Global COE Program. In search of sustainable Humanosphere in Asia and Africa. (2009-2012 ), with Kyoto University – Member of interdisciplinary team led by Prof Hiramatsu. Funder: Japan Education Ministry (Monbushô)


  • 2008. ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’. Acoustic Traces of the Material and the Immaterial in a Zen Temple. Sound and Anthropology website (University of St Andrews)
  • With K Hiramatsu (forthcoming 2010) ‘Sounding Out Indigenous Identities in Okinawa Japan’. In Anthropology and Indigenous Studies: Learning from a Long encounter. ed J Hendry & L Fitznor. Berghahn Press.

General reading

  • Attali, J. 1987. Noise, The Political Economy of Music. University of Minnesota Press
  • Bull, M ed. 2003. The Auditory Culture Reader. Berg Press
  • Prendergast, M. 2000. The Ambient Century. Bloomsbury
  • Murray Schafer, R.1977. The Tuning of the World. McLelland and Stewart
  • Veit Erlmann (ed.), 2004. Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity. Berg Press
  • Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. (2nd edition) U Pennsylvania Press
  • Mark M. Smith (ed.), 2004. Hearing History. University Georgia Press
  • Timothy D. Taylor, 2001. Strange Sounds: Music, Technology, and Culture. Routledge Press

Recommended films

  • The Conversation
  • Listen to Britain
  • The Touch of Sound


Staff interested in orality and aurality

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