Roshanak Kheshti, PhD, is an associate professor in ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her research lies at the unique nexus of anthropology, sound studies, and cultural studies, among other areas, and her scholarship foregrounds critical approaches to race, gender, and sexuality in sound studies as well as the practice of ethnography. Kelsey Chatlosh, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), met (virtually) with Kheshti to discuss the power relations of ethnographic research when recording and sharing sounds, particularly people’s voices, and how questions of research design, distribution of risk, reciprocity with our interlocutors, and accessible pedagogy relate to the production of knowledge under digital conditions.
KC: Your book, Modernity’s Ear: Listening to Race and Gender in World Music (2015), begins with a discussion of the beginnings of anthropology’s practice of collecting sounds, specifically white women ethnographers “salvaging” Native American languages and musical practices through use of a phonograph in the twentieth–century United States. Today, most researchers doing ethnography go into the field equipped with a portable digital recorder and maybe also a studio microphone, among other key pieces of equipment, most commonly to record the people’s voices. What do you think of the sound-“catching” of ethnographers today, and their uses of portable or studio digital recorders and the audio they record? How may forms or relations of power be (re)constituted by certain ethnographic methodologies of sound recording?
RK: What I am preoccupied with in Modernity’s Ear is the political efficacy of sound recording for recordists and listeners. The question of political efficacy can easily be asked of contemporary ethnographers who use audio recording, too. What can the use of these technologies tell us about those who use them?
It’s not that I’m not interested in the subjects on record, but I question to what degree they are subjects and to what degree the recordist and/or the listener is the subject. If contemporary ethnographers considered this question vis-à-vis sound recording in the way that we have come to expect of their “writing culture,” then perhaps we’d have a different way of relating to sound recording, one that understands the use-value of these media beyond just being passive archives.
Just because we can record everything doesn’t mean that we as scholars must or should record everything. The modus operandi (MO) of big data/quantitative research is to collect lots of data now and interpret it later; the use-value is imagined in the form of a kind of futures trading and a valuation (and, in the case of big data, monetization) to come. This should not be the MO of qualitative research. Ethnographers have an ethical obligation to avoid replicating many of the violations on which all of the social science fields are based.
At some level, all forms of recording (writing, audio, video, photo) must be evaluated for how they distribute burdens of risk and objectification. When it comes to ethics, I’m interested in more discussions around the distribution of risk. How might ethnographers be trained to engage in cost-benefit analyses vis-à-vis data collection technologies?
This is especially concerning with the insecurity of digital technologies (whether at border checkpoints or due to hacking). What responsibilities do ethnographers have regarding the security of their interlocutors, not just in published work but also at the level of data encryption?
KC: You referenced the book Writing Culture (1986), which is a canonical work that discusses the “poetics and politics” of writing one’s fieldwork experiences into an ethnography and all of the questions of representation that that entails and was soon followed by Women Writing Culture (1994) and a handful of other critical responses. Could you further expand on how you think contemporary ethnographers could consider their uses of technology “vis-à-vis sound recording in the way that we have come to expect of their ‘writing culture’”?
RK: I am very familiar with Women Writing Culture and that book made an important intervention. One of the things that I tried to do with Modernity’s Ear was take seriously the differences it does make when women are essentially writing culture—but, in this case, writing through sound.
Women Writing Culture is a kind of rebuttal to Writing Culture in an effort to call out its masculinist presumptions about knowledge production, which do not get named in the book. In Women Writing Culture there is more of a reflection on what the positionality of the woman author does to the particular stories that are told, and I was very preoccupied with that too. From whose point of view or positionality, specifically oral positionality, is the story is being told, and what difference does that make?What responsibilities do ethnographers have regarding the security of their interlocutors, not just in published work but also at the level of data encryption?
Modernity’s Ear is a feminist inquiry informed by Women Writing Culture. It is an inquiry that insists that storytelling is always in part about the storyteller, whether or not that storyteller recognizes or acknowledges that. In the 1980s and 1990s, anthropology was really shaken by this deconstruction of its project through writing, and to an extent through visual culture—both of which have been the primary forms that anthropologists have contended with, in terms of these epistemological questions. Whereas, in the case of the particular archives that I was engaging, I was specifically interested in what difference sound makes to this acknowledgment.
The thing about sound recording that I find to be incomparable to these other forms is the intimacy that we have with sound recording. It is such an everyday practice and has been for a while, essentially since the cassette became globally distributed. Sound recording has been a kind of folk archival medium.
When you write, there is a self-consciousness that arises. The written word brings with it a kind of burden, whether that is a grammatical burden or a burden of who else is going to see this—the sort of diary with a lock on it. It always anticipates that it is going to be found. There is always a kind of self-awareness that the written word will live beyond the author. And that is fundamentally at the heart of the deconstructive critique of Writing Culture.
Yet, there does not seem to be the same kind of cultural preoccupation with representation when it comes to audio. People will decide to record audio quickly, without as much consideration. What then is made invisible are these larger structures that organize meaning—which are more visible in the form of writing because writing is a visible form, unless, for example, the writing is translated to braille. The recorded medium is presumed to be somewhat of an ephemeral phenomenon, and therefore questions of representation are not as much of a preoccupation.
In my response to your question about the widespread use of sound recording, I was really trying to think about how we develop an ethical kind of practice when it comes to representation writ large, particularly in relation to this recent kind of hysteria. It is as if everyone suddenly woke up and realized, “Oh no, all of my Facebook data can be hacked!”
As researchers, we collect data that are incredibly incriminating in some cases, or, if not incriminating, can be incredibly destructive to the social world that we are investigating. This has been a preoccupation of anthropologists for the entirety of the twentieth century. Take the notion of gossip, for example: the anthropologist becomes entrusted with information that could upset the social order of things. What does the anthropologist do with that information?
That is the kind of trivialized, feminized way that this phenomenon has been discussed. I was trying to think about—at a very practical level—what ethical protocols have to be established in order to engage in a practice that ensures that the lives of our interlocutors are not going to be ruined or destroyed by our recording practices. But, beyond just the practical application, we can become more aware of the technologies that have been very explicitly designed for what we call in today’s design-speak a kind of intuitive, user-friendly engagement. From the design perspective: we do not want to be intimidated by technology, we want technology to be a tool that we make use of.
Another way to look at this is that what the technology also has to do is essentially mask its own technological work through the practice of suturing.1“Suturing” refers to the process of stitching or joining together various parts or sections—such as the ends of a severed tendon—often with the aim of creating a seamless union of pieces that masks the very process of suturing and the related apparatus that was necessary to create the suture. In film theory, drawing from the semiotics theory of Jacques Lacan, “suturing” refers to how the apparatus of tools involved in cinematic production—e.g., the arrangement and lighting of the stage, actors and props, the camera movement, and film editing—ties the viewer to the narrative of the film and thus also to a particular subjectivity and viewpoint. In other words, “‘suture’ is the name given to the procedures by means of which cinematic texts confer subjectivity upon their viewers” (Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, 1984, p. 195). We see this discussed in apparatus theory in relation to film recording and cinema: the camera should not draw attention to itself. And it is through its ingenious way of disappearing that we then are sutured into the diegesis of the film. How does that then affect us as researchers when we do sound recording?
This is really a provocation for reflecting on the practical questions of ethics and protocol, but also for becoming self-aware of the way that we become instrumentalized in the technology’s own absenting of the work that it is doing in the world, and we contribute to that kind of suturing effect that happens in film.
KC: You mentioned in your previous response that you are concerned about the burdens of risk and objectification, particularly in regard to the work of anthropologists doing sound recording. Are there any best practices that you aim to follow or advise students to follow when doing an ethnographic project to try to mitigate some of these concerns or to be more open about them—aside from institutional review board (IRB) requirements? Are there any particular examples of projects that you have encountered that have either successfully or unsuccessfully attempted to distribute such burdens of risk or objectification?
RK: Ironically, in my first book [Modernity’s Ear] I am doing more of a “studying-up” project. Some of the questions that I brought up in my first response were specifically much more relevant to the context of a subaltern study, which is what we typically see in ethnographic practice. Although ethnography has become this incredibly widely implemented method, in anthropology, sociology, and ethnic studies (which is the discipline in which I teach), ethnography is considered to be the means of accessing the lived reality of those whose knowledge has been subjugated; the ethnographic encounter thus becomes a way of representing that subjugated knowledge in a way that is otherwise absent in the archive or elsewhere. And it is this context from which that question comes—the question about who has to take the burden of risk in that particular dynamic.
In the context of sound recording, we might even generalize more broadly and analyze the burden of risk in relation to city or natural soundscape projects. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for example, has a long history of recording soundscapes that chronicle bird migrations. I find it very interesting to think about how sound recording becomes the default medium for archiving the natural world, in much the same way we saw with sound recording in the “salvage ethnography” period.2“Salvage ethnography” refers to a now highly criticized approach that aims to materialize and preserve the “remains” of “disappearing” cultures or languages. This approach was common among white anthropologists of the early-to-mid 1900s in the United States, including Franz Boas and his followers, who sought to preserve what they perceived as “disappearing” cultural artifacts or practices of various Native American communities. Audio is the most efficient, smallest-sized digital file, as compared to video, and so you could make a sound recording of some birds in your backyard and email that to Cornell and they can archive that for you fairly easily.
We can also consider the various ways in which communities and field sites are identified, often by virtue of their pre-existing status as “at risk”—e.g., subaltern communities, rare birds, landscapes in decline. What difference does that make to the researcher? What role does the researcher play in that status of risk? Does the presence of the researcher have any impact on that risk other than the collection of data?
In some cases, we might say that the collection of data might contribute to the risk. I am thinking about these recent deep arctic “eco-tourism” cruises that are on the rise, where you can go into parts of the arctic that were previously inaccessible because they were frozen. Ostensibly, the cruise is for the eco-tourist, the person who wants to have a very low impact on that environment and learn more about conservation. Yet, in order to actually get there, one of these particular arctic cruise ships had the carbon footprint equivalent to that of one million cars. These “eco-tourism” cruise ships are thus counterproductively contributing to the further decline of that region, despite the fact that that effect is presumably not what the cruise passengers intended.
In the context in which I teach in ethnic studies, it is not uncommon for our students to want to do their ethnographic methods practicum with a community that is already experiencing research fatigue. These are communities that have been the subject of research so much that they have developed a kind of callous relationship with the researcher. Anthropology has a long history of this. A research visit may only be a moment in the life of the researcher, but in the life of the researched it could be yet another moment of encountering researchers or other outsiders who are coming to make an impact.
One book that has countered the history of this practice is Aimee Meredith Cox’s Shapeshifters (2015). She uses dance as a point of encounter with a group of young women that live in a homeless shelter, and there is actually an exchange that is taking place. It is not a unidirectional extraction of knowledge or information or data or interviews or oral histories. But, through various staged productions, Cox—who was a professional dancer for some years before becoming a professional anthropologist—develops this method where she uses dance as a modality of exchange with these girls.
The practice of exchange between anthropologists and their interlocutors has historically been one that was described through gift-giving or through payments, and it is still very much practiced that way. This is not to say that this practice should not happen; if your interlocutor wants money then that is what they want and what they need. However, the particular form of exchange that Cox very beautifully narrates is one where there is a giving and a taking that is happening on both her end and the girls’ end.
That question of reciprocity is what I am trying to get at. If risk is distributed evenly then not only is the researcher vulnerable in slightly different ways, but she is as vulnerable as the interlocutors and has as much to gain as they do. That is an aspect of research design that is not emphasized very often.
I found Erika Brady’s book [A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography, 2012] incredibly useful when writing my first book. A research visit may only be a moment in the life of the researcher, but in the life of the researched it could be yet another moment of encountering researchers or other outsiders who are coming to make an impact.Brady was a part of the Federal Cylinder Project—where the Smithsonian tried to repatriate all of these recordings from the 1970s that were essentially disintegrating because they were all on wax cylinders. It was her job to transfer them to tape and then try to repatriate them with the indigenous groups that they documented. Brady’s book is fascinating because of the way that she recalls all of these uneven encounters with different indigenous groups—some of whom were happy to accept these repatriated sound remains and some of whom wanted nothing to do with these things.
Audio recording is a version of documentation that is happening in real time, probably every day during ethnographic research. Sound remains then essentially become ethnographic objects in the archive. There is a presumed teleology of ethnographic fieldwork—there is an end to fieldwork and the end is the book and that book is really what matters. Instead, researchers could think about every step in the research as significant.
KC: As a PhD student writing proposals for future fieldwork for my dissertation, I am often reminded that more discussions of critical approaches to research design and ethics are needed in anthropology and other fields doing ethnography.
Your last response made me think about a question that relates to my proposed research with activists and an issue I ran into when working on my institutional review board (IRB) application for summer research. Oftentimes the IRB assumes that the people we do fieldwork with do not want to be named and that they want to be anonymous. But when doing research with activists and other folks, sometimes individuals want to be named, and not naming and anonymizing those individuals might contribute to the process of silencing them and their analyses, instead providing my voice as the one authoritative voice when eventually writing the dissertation.
I have been thinking about possibly recording interviews with folks and, following a participatory approach, inviting people to listen back and decide if there are certain time-stamped periods of those recordings that they would like to cut. I am also considering doing a series of recordings with a set of individuals so that they would have more time to think through their thoughts and come up with new ideas, after listening to and reflecting on their prior interviews. Then I would possibly share the final set of interviews publicly, if of course the people interviewed are willing and interested in doing that.
So in thinking about doing ethnographic research and sound recordings with groups of people who are activists or otherwise and who might not want to be anonymous, how should these dynamics affect research design?
RK: I think one way to reflect on what the ethnographic encounter is, whether it is in the context of working with activists or the classic encounter with “the other,” is to reimagine it as a collaboration—in a collaboration, everyone is bringing a different skillset to the table.
One of the other complications that typically arises in this kind of subaltern “studying down,” so to speak—the way it is distinguished from “studying up”—is that the ethnographer becomes extremely anxious about their positionality and the power that they wield by virtue of their affiliation with an institution, by virtue of their educational differences, by virtue of all these forms of social, economic, and racial distinctions. You will always have differences with your interlocutors—no matter who you are or how similar you are to that person.
Finding a way to really negotiate the different skillsets that are being brought to the table would invite the ethnographer to be reflective on her own skillsets and what she has to contribute to the conversation. Would it be valuable to the activist community to have a conversation about the larger implications of what it means to essentially give a testimony to the empirical knowledge archive? What are the implications of that? How would this community like to do so in a way that is strategic?
Coming up with that strategy collaboratively is one way of creating a table around which everyone can sit. Also, it is an approach that invites the ethnographer to that table as an active participant in that process of knowledge production.
IRB review boards are notoriously inept when it comes to qualitative social science research. To be honest I feel like a lot of students end up going the rounds with IRB and coming up with the kind of language IRB is willing to sign off on and moving forward. IRB speaks IRB, and so you have to learn to speak to them in IRB and then go do your work.
But in the case of the activists, I recommend that you really engage them and strategize together in thinking about the kind of use-value of the work that you are doing. If you do think it is incriminating for them to use their own names, then it is important to speak up and advise them that you are willing to include their names but it could be incriminating. It is important to weigh in as a participant and not just accept the passive position of “I will do whatever you want to do.” Instead, do provide the kind of educated advice that somebody who has this many years of training in an area of higher education can provide
KC: Earlier you mentioned Aimee Cox’s work and her book Shapeshifters as a good example of a project that followed a model of reciprocity in its research design. Have you come across any projects that work with and share sounds to some degree—oral history, or interview or soundscape projects—that you think also did well in following a model of reciprocity or repatriation in their research design?
RK: I recently had a chance to meet an indigenous anthropologist from Canada named Robin Gray. I met her while she was a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow working with Amy Lonetree at UC Santa Cruz. Interestingly enough, we were also both coincidentally interested in some of the same archives (when I was doing my research for Modernity’s Ear).
Gray’s work is very interesting. She is specifically examining the repatriation of sound. Gray has worked with a number of archives around North America, serving as a kind of expert representative for various tribes—some of which she had no affiliation with—to basically advocate for the repatriation of what she calls “intangible cultural heritage” in the form of songs and oral histories.
Gray is interested in thinking about the presence of indigenous cultural heritage, even in forms of music that are not considered indigenous music. She looks at the way that a certain period of liturgical composition was basically pulling from traditional songs in the northwest coast region—this obviously raises questions of appropriation but also copyright, and about how you repatriate this intangible resource. How do you claim cultural propriety when aspects of an intangible cultural heritage show up in songs that are not “traditional” songs of that community?
KC: As a professor at UC San Diego, do you share sounds as part of your pedagogy? If so, do you use any digital technologies or platforms, and which do you find most useful? Are there any digital tools for teaching or sharing your research with sounds that you wish existed?
RK: I have experimented with SoundCloud as a digital platform with a dynamic interface that has the potential to allow classroom interaction with sound texts. I especially like how students can communicate and discuss aspects of sound texts within the file itself. Unfortunately, I have not found a format that works across different abilities of users. Also, some apps and programs sit behind a paywall, which is obviously not what you want in a teaching setting.
I find that my students have more experience and are quicker learners with image and even video-based formats. We need a format that is intuitive and user-friendly so that our sound courses do not first and foremost become production classes.
KC: Could you expand on how you have been using SoundCloud in your pedagogy so far? You mentioned that you have not found a digital platform for sound texts that works well across different abilities of users—what kinds of different abilities are you referring to? Relatedly, what kinds of features would you like to see in a digital platform for sound texts that would go beyond those of SoundCloud?
RK: I was really drawn to SoundCloud because of the way that it maps the song and because users can annotate the song. The potential of that practice I don’t think has adequately been realized yet.
So I started using it in a class I teach called Listening to the World, which started off as a freshman seminar—one of these one-credit courses that we periodically offer that don’t require any reading. So, I use SoundCloud as a way of getting around the no reading stipulation. Students would have to listen to the song and comment on the song vis-à-vis a prompt that I provided for them and also read other peoples’ comments.
When it worked, I thought it was perfect for teaching sound. But it didn’t work very well a lot of the time; due to licensing issues, I had to basically upload every song that I wanted to reference. I found myself in this strange predicament where I was claiming to be the author of a song, which I wasn’t, but I just wanted to have it available to the class to have as an example sound text.
It is definitely noteworthy that, in this moment with so much social media and digital everything being accessible, this kind of dynamic, interactive sound-based medium—which I think at its heart tries to be a social networking tool—cannot really get off the ground in a way that is similar to some of the image-based apps like Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook (this is not to rehearse the same ocular-centrism argument, but it is noteworthy). IRB speaks IRB, and so you have to learn to speak to them in IRB and then go do your work.It is as if somehow a majority of the programming labor is being directed toward these visual platforms, and the sound-based platforms have really not been successful in social networking despite the fact that there is obviously as great of a demand for sound in the digital platform. I’m talking about these tools that are being developed for social networking that I’m then trying to appropriate for the classroom, which a lot of people are doing nowadays—appropriating the social networking platforms for teaching. SoundCloud happens to be the only sound-based social networking platform that I know of, but it is insubstantial.
I am really interested in opening up a space for students to interact with each other inside of the song or inside the sound file, through this kind of annotative practice. So that’s where the potential exists as far as I’m concerned. But I don’t think the technology has been developed to the extent that it is really usable for the classroom the way that I want it to be.
As far as the question of ability is concerned, initially my comments were speaking to ability in a different way than you are intimating now, but I think your question is really quite relevant. Any teacher wants students to come to the classroom prepared to do some basic things, so that, for example, the teacher does not have to teach how to access PDFs at the beginning of every quarter. I haven’t found that that kind of general shared knowledge exists with sound-based digital platforms. Most people in my Listening to the World class will just default to YouTube whenever they want to share a sound file, so YouTube then becomes the accessible platform that is almost universally shared.
As far as accessibility beyond what I had intended—I think what you are suggesting is accessibility to many different abilities, even from the perspective of disability. When I was a postdoc at Berkeley, I was giving a mock job talk and there was a deaf anthropology PhD student who asked me some really simple questions, such as: “Why aren’t you handing your talk out in the form of papers so that people can follow along?”
Now I am the cochair of the Society for Queer Anthropologists, a group housed inside the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Currently, there is a broad organization-wide conversation happening around ability and accessibility, centered around rehearsing some of these very low-tech kinds of practices that anybody can practice to make their talk—whether it’s a conference presentation or a business meeting—more accessible. 3Useful references: “Guidelines for an Accessible Presentation” by the Disability Research Interest Group (a Special Interest Group of the Society for Medical Anthropology within the AAA); “Creating an Accessible Online Presentation” by Tyler Zoanni. It is a really interesting question, one that I haven’t really encountered in the classroom yet.
The classroom for me is often a space where I have to make decisions on the fly to accommodate students, because you can’t always anticipate what the specific needs of any particular group of students is going to be. My practice has generally been to develop those accommodations on an as-needed basis as opposed to preemptively presenting everyone with those accommodations. I think that is a practice that could be pedagogically transformative, however. What if every student received access to the materials that the student that needed particular accommodations had received?
At a really basic level, we only have so many hours in the day. Sometimes it is really just a matter of resource and time management. But what if we created a standard practice where we made every lecture available in three different formats? Obviously, that wouldn’t only facilitate learning, it would make it more possible for more people to learn. Technology could make it more feasible to do that. Especially with the increasing adjunctification of the professoriate, it would be more realistic if there were technological tools that would enable us to do that—especially at public institutions, such as UC or CUNY, that can’t provide a lot of staff support.
As I near the end of my tenth year as a professor I am definitely finding myself reflecting more and more on how I can reapproach things in my teaching. In particular, I really want to come to this question of how to engage with the medium of sound as a teacher in a different way. It is a really exciting provocation, yet it is shockingly elusive and difficult to realize.[This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.]