Lippman Sounds Call for "Resonant Ethnography"

By Rebecca Egli – Can anthropologists listen? How important is sound for ethnographic research? On May 19, 2016 Alexandra Lippman, a cultural anthropologist and postdoctoral fellow with the Innovating Communication in Scholarship project, raised such questions when she presented her chapter from a forthcoming book that examines alternative ways researchers record and share knowledge about society.

That book, an edited collection to be published by MIT Press, is entitled Transmissions: Critical Tactics for Making & Communicating Research. Lippman’s chapter, "Sound Ethnography," showcases her work—and collaborations with other anthropologists—in what she calls "resonant anthropology." This field is produced through the interactions between sound recordings, photographs, text, and maps. Sound, she explained, helps include that which is typically left out.

Sound-based scholarship

Passionate about the possibilities of working with sound, Lippman founded the Sound Ethnography Project. This collaborative website is designed for anthropologists "engaging with sound to produce novel ethnographic methods and forms." Her work is part of a broader intellectual turn toward sound-based scholarship, representing an effort to more fully capture ethnographic subjects in field work.

While ethnography provides a tool for anthropologists to study a particular people group and their culture, field research is typically recorded only in visual form, through writing and the use of photography. "Efforts to represent the entire world visually miss a great deal of information without sound," Lippman said.

The practice of "doing anthropology in sound" has a rich but little known history, she explained—a tradition within which she is eager to situate her own work with the Sound Ethnography Project. One notable contemporary example is the Pitt Rivers Museum "Reel to Real" project at the University of Oxford. Today the museum provides listeners access to thousands of hours of interviews and songs gathered over the last century from anthropologists’ field recordings.

Hearing the favela

Lippman’s own research examines how intellectual property practices and technological changes impact creativity. She has conducted fieldwork in Rio de Janiero since 2008, and in her talk she illustrated the importance of sound for her own research in the Brazilian city. 

Favelas, she explained, often do not appear on official maps. These slums may be invisible cartographically, but not audibly. Sound clips that Lippman recorded throughout the slums allow others to "hear the favela." Thus, favelas and their inhabitants can be heard and studied in ways that complement a written analysis.

Lippman believes that pairing ethnography with sound recordings creates "a sense of depth in anthropology." 

Alexandra Lippman is affiliated with the Department of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies. To learn more about her research, visit her UC Davis profile page and her website.