Sound Scraps and Resources of Ethnographic Writing

Julie Métais

“I contend that the ethnographic impulse to render the texture of the ordinary depends upon close attention to detail.” 

(Das 2020: 2)


“Scraps are things that apparently lack beauty – a form of waste – but then we suddenly realise that this waste and these scraps have as much importance as the finest stone.” 

(Paranthoën 2009: 121-122)


In this paper I take a retrospective look at the nature of the corpus of sound material formed during the anthropological research on conflict and violence that I conducted between 2009 and 2016 in Oaxaca, Mexico. Although the approach I adopted to examine these conflicts around issues of identity, society, and territory was not really linked with the anthropology of sound, during my various field studies I nevertheless constantly produced and collected sound material. I paid little attention to the quality of these sound recordings and productions, which, at the time, I considered merely as notes to be used in the analysis prior to the writing process. As a result, the recordings vary in sound quality and in subject matter: soundscapes, situations, recorded lists, musical rehearsals, phone messages, local archives, etc. 


Paradoxically, this corpus contains little of the “classic” audio material of social science research, such as recorded interviews. Throughout the research, the political context in the region of Oaxaca where I worked was particularly tense. It was marked by numerous protests against controversial education reform policies as well as in relation to territorial and sovereignty issues raised by the development of extractivist infrastructure (mines and dams, for example) in indigenous areas. Major socio-racial inequalities were a feature of everyday social relations, and these were deeply rooted in historical contexts where conflict and violence were not the exception but the rule. It was a context in which rumors and mistrust were rife, creating situations that were particularly difficult to apprehend (Métais 2017; Taussig 2003). That is why I met my interviewees most of the time without a recording device, so that we could more freely discuss sensitive issues related to police repression and violence.


I describe in more detail, here, my corpus of sound recordings and explore, retrospectively, what elements of this material directly contributed to the process of anthropological analysis and writing and what was left out. I propose not only that careful listening to what was left out could enhance my own analysis of the politics within this empirical enquiry but, moreover, that rejected acoustic materials could, under certain conditions, be incorporated into anthropological – and sound-based – writings on politics. This reflective approach to a corpus of sound material that has initially been discarded should also be linked to a reevaluation of the position of the ethnographer, who has the power to sort, to erase, to decide what becomes audible and what remains inaudible at the boundary between voice and noise (Ochoa Gautier 2014). This listening and recording position of the researcher in the constitution of sound archives is closely linked to situations of knowledge production (Hoffmann 2023).


This text therefore forms part of a reflective process of “revisiting” a program of research and a corpus of ethnographic material made in the context of a personal research trajectory that is gradually transmogrified into a sounded, decolonial, and sensory anthropology (Feld 1990, 1991; Howes 2005; Pink 2009; Taussig 1993).[1] In considering the “sound scraps” from these investigations, I will address certain “deaf spots” and positionality issues in my anthropological writing, including possibly neglected elements within an extended program of empirical inquiry into politics in Mexico.