Soundscape: A Method for Applied Anthropology

Most people experience the world through a combination of senses—sound, sight, smell, and so on. But when I survey the rather broad world of qualitative research/applied anthropology/user research, I see a substantial emphasis on the visual and an almost complete neglect of the auditory in representing research and generating insights.

However, on reflection, it should be readily apparent that attending to sound can generate profound knowledge about a physical space, social interaction, or personal experience. Sound interacts with other sensory perceptions and changes the ways people behave or respond to stimuli.

Of course, there are fields of research and production that have long been aware of the importance of sound as a path to knowledge. There are field recordists who create extensive soundscapes to represent a place or recreate an experience. The academic field of Sound Studies employs a remarkable array of methods to generate knowledge through and about sound.

But there is very little effort to apply these sound techniques in the realm of applied anthropology—to treat the soundscape as a tool for generating actionable insights rather than an aesthetic object or a less pragmatic representation of knowledge. I am interested in exploring how soundscapes can contribute to the world of ethnography in industry, to demonstrate the value of sound research for corporate strategy and industrial design.

What is a soundscape?

The term “soundscape” was popularized by the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer and it can refer to the composite sound world in any environment. It has been used to refer to natural sound environments and constructed ones, and it can be experienced out in the world or through media. There are soundscape artists and there are people who value listening as a means to understanding the world. In short, it is a broad term that can encompass a range of experiences and recording practices.

Phonography versus Photography

Because the photograph is a standard research tool in applied anthropology, for both revealing and representing evidence, I think it is useful to compare the soundscape to the photograph. Both media make nominal claims to transparency: there is a colloquial sense that what we see in a photograph is, in some sense, “real,” and soundscape recordings make similar claims. Of course, most of us know that photographs are easy to manipulate in ways slight and substantial, and the same is true of soundscape recordings. Just as you can subtly adjust the lighting of a photograph or insert a person into a scene, so can you gently emphasize particular sonic events or add entirely new sounds to a recorded soundscape.

Soundscapes Are Empathic

The value of the soundscape recording, then, is not about making claims to some objective “reality.” Rather, as when ethnographers use photography, the soundscape researcher uses sound recording to reveal and represent a particular experience, event, or environment. Sound can powerfully evoke a sense of place, action, movement, or sociality. The soundscape is a means of allowing people to share others’ experiences and subjectivities through sound. The soundscape places the listener in a particular relationship to the sound environment—allowing you to hear through someone else’s ears, as it were.

Soundscapes Have Design Relevance

Ultimately, I believe that soundscape research can have profound relevance for any number of companies (such as the remarkable sound design by Matthew Bennett at Microsoft). Ethnographers are already very comfortable photographic their research contexts to study and show to others; why not also integrate sound into that process?

Soundscape: Portland International Airport, November 19, 2018

Soundscape: Powell Street Station Muni Platform, San Francisco, March 3, 2019