Listening to the Sounds of Research

Categories: Creative Methods, Dissemination, Qualitative, Writing and Editing

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Qualitative researchers listen to stories and turn them into data. Sometimes we take notes during interviews, focus groups, or observations— setting down spoken answers as written words. Other times we record our data collection, then carefully transcribe what we’ve heard. Whether listening in the moment or reviewing an audio file, we must find ways to make the sigh, the emotional catch in the voice, the singing exuberance, or the threatening argument coming from the apartment next door, into flat letters on a page. In addition to sounds associated with participants’ responses to prompts or questions, participants live in a “sonic environment” that may be important to our understanding of how they relate to their cultures and communities.

SoundsThe “ubiquitous acoustic sphere simultaneously being produced by social action and surrounding that social action” has been largely ignored by qualitative researchers (Maeder, 2014, p. 424). It is not that scholars have been uninterested in ways that sound “implicates the body differently than visuals/texts” or in the new questions we could explore (Daza & Gershon, 2015, p. 240). Researchers have stuck with the written word largely because we need to present our findings in articles, chapters, or books that adhere to conventions of the printed page. That is changing: with the multi-media nature of online communications and increase in electronic journals, researchers are finding new ways to collect data that preserve the audio dimension—and journals are starting to embed links and media, allowing readers to listen.

Four recent studies show some new possibilities for research and dissemination: “An emotional cartography of resonance” (Berrens, 2016) and “Thinking Through New Methodologies. Sounding Out the City with Teenagers” (O’Keeffe, 2015) demonstrate methods for collecting sound data. “Implicit theories of creative ideas: How culture guides creativity assessments” (Loewenstein & Mueller, 2016) and “’Submitting love?’ A Sensory Sociology of Southbourne” (Dean, 2016) demonstrate ways to share aural data and findings.

What do you think? Do you want to share your findings in ways that exceed inherent limitations of text on page? Do you want to consume research in ways that allow for aural engagement? Use the comment box to share your views—and links to examples.

Berrens (2016) and O’Keefe (2015) were both interested in using sound to understand participants’ experiences of urban environments. Berrens studied London’s East End; O’Keefe studied Dublin. Both used audio-recorded walks in multi-stage qualitative studies.

Berrens (2016) first conducted one-one interviews with participants, then recorded audio walks. Participants navigated the routes, and explained their feelings along the way. After each walk, Berrens conducted a second interview. A year later she carried out a second phase of fieldwork: she met with each participant, and they listened to the audio walk recording together. She reported that “after talking to me about their relation to the place in an interview, the walks put the participants back in touch with the place sensorially… Upon listening to the recordings, feelings and sensations that had been latent during our interviews came to the surface, hence aiding a reflection on their own processes of making place and illustrating an emerging emotional cartography of the East End. (p. 77)

For the first stage of her study about young people’s impressions of changes and development in Dublin’s working class neighborhoods, O’Keefe (2015) conducted autoethnographic audio walks. These soundwalks were recorded, including not only the local sounds, but also observations and reflections. For the next three stages O’Keefe engaged local teenagers in 1) listening soundwalks as a group, 2) documenting sights and sounds in pairs, and  3) sound mapping and focus groups to dig more deeply into the meanings and discuss related observations of participants’ use of digital audio technologies (O’Keeffe, 2015).

Berrens (2016) and O’Keefe’s (2015) published articles included maps, images, and short transcripts of participants’ comments. Neither of them included any links to media or sound files: the next two examples show ways to do so.

Loewenstein and Mueller (2016) conducted a study that involved both oral and written forms of data collection. They published their findings in a new scholarly journal, the Academy of Management Discoveries. Discoveries is published entirely online, and has an editorial vision that welcomes the use of media. The Loewenstein and Mueller (2016) article is enhanced by media in two ways. First, throughout the article, the reader can click on icons that link to recordings made by the authors. The authors use these embedded mini-podcasts to discuss the back story of the research and the evolution of the article. Second, a multimedia presentation of the study was posted on YouTube and linked to the article. Raw data or voices of the participants are not heard in either of these presentation types.

The research underpinning “Submitting love? A Sensory Sociology of Southbourne” sought to understand and remember experiences of students in a campus building that was later demolished  (Dean, 2016). Findings were presented in the form of an audio “soundscape” (p. 162). In this case, the journal, Qualitative Inquiry, publishes articles in a traditional format. The author simply uploaded the audio file to YouTube, and included the link in the article. The reader can move through a narrative explanation while listening to the recording.

Conventional v Digital

Based on this short overview, we can identify a few options. At the design stage, we can think about the place of sounds in the inquiry, and what we should record. Then, we’ll decide whether to transcribe sounds into text or use original audio files as the basis of analysis. For example, we could use Arnfred’s suggestion to code and organize sound clips into thematic “sound montages” (Arnfred, 2015). We’ll consider ways to disseminate our findings: can we share aural data without jeopardizing participants’ confidentiality? Alternatively, would it be advantageous to verbally explain or discuss the study? If we’ve decided to share sounds as well as words, we can look for digital options that embrace multimedia storytelling, or simply upload the files and include a link.


Arnfred, M. (2015). Polyphonic sound montages. Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 4(3), 356-366. doi:10.1108/joe-10-2014-0034

Berrens, K. (2016). An emotional cartography of resonance. Emotion, Space and Society, 20, 75-81. doi:

Daza, S., & Gershon, W. S. (2015). Beyond ocular inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(7), 639-644. doi:doi:10.1177/1077800414566692

Dean, J. (2016). “Submitting love?” A sensory sociology of Southbourne. Qualitative Inquiry, 22(3), 162-168. doi:doi:10.1177/1077800415605050

Loewenstein, J., & Mueller, J. (2016). Implicit theories of creative ideas: How culture guides creativity assessments. Academy of Management Discoveries, 2(4), 320-348. doi:10.5465/amd.2014.0147. Open access.

Maeder, C. (2014). Analysing sounds. In U. Flich (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Analysis. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. Retrieved from doi:10.4135/9781446282243

O’Keeffe, L. (2015). Thinking through new methodologies. Sounding out the city with teenagers. Qualitative Sociology Review, 11(1), 6.

One thought on “Listening to the Sounds of Research

  1. Hello Janet, thanks for this fascinating posting. It was very timely as I had just read Christine Woodcocks 2016 work in IJQM on Listening Guide.

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