Conclusion: a Dirty Theory of Noise


It was argued above that it has become commonplace amongst those writing about sound to define noise as “sound out of place,” a definition which borrows the words of Mary Douglas and suggests a connection between dirt and noise that has until now neither been proved nor properly investigated. It was also argued that where noise and dirt are only connected superficially, those drawing on the “sound out of place” definition have overlooked other aspects of Douglas’ writing that are useful for understanding noise. By undertaking a close reading of Douglas’ theory of dirt and applying it extensively to noise, this article fills a gap in the literature and introduces rigor to an area of sound studies discussion from which rigor has been conspicuously absent.


We have found that the link between dirt and noise is both substantive and useful and argue that repositioning Purity and Danger as a key text for sound studies has been a productive process. Applying Douglas’ theory of dirt to noise gives us a new set of aphorisms and reveals much about how and why sounds come to be “noise” and what it means when we designate them as such. We now know, for instance, not just that noise is “sound out of place,” but that sounds primarily come to be “out of place” by virtue of being anomalous or ambiguous. We also know that anomalous and ambiguous sounds are frequently seen as disruptive or dangerous – although these are not the only possible reactions – and that steps must be taken to negotiate, deal with, and otherwise “tidy up” sonic transgressions so that order can be restored. Likewise, thinking about noise through Douglas deepens and strengthens our understanding of noise as symbolic and emphasizes that debates about noise often have less to do with loudness or sound than they do with status, hierarchy, and class.


In the previous section, noise was frequently described as being “like dirt.” This would seem to imply that noise and dirt are analogous. The same is suggested by the literature that mentions both dirt and noise. Bailey, for example, writes that noise “echoes” dirt (2004: 23), while Bijsterveld states that the two “have much in common” (2008: 37). In each instance, the implication is that “noise” and “dirt” are similar, but different, that they are categories constructed by comparable processes but are in some sense distinct. For this to be correct, however, there must surely be a clear, identifiable way in which noise and dirt differ, and our investigation would suggest that there is none. Each of Douglas’ theoretical points about dirt can be applied to noise, and in the empirical examples we have considered it is unclear what separates the two. We would suggest that in situating noise and dirt as analogous, sound scholars have not gone far enough. Rather than thinking of noise as similar or equivalent to dirt, we should instead say that noise is dirt, an aural type of pollution. Thinking about noise in this way heightens our consciousness of noise as a charged and challenging presence. If we see noise as dirt/pollution in the Douglassian sense, then we can appreciate with more immediacy the revulsion, fear, and danger which noise can evoke as well as the potential it holds as a creative force for use in acts of deliberate aesthetic and social transgression. In short, we are better able to appreciate the fullness of its social meaning. At the same time, equating noise with dirt draws awareness to the collective mental and physical effort which goes into managing, controlling, and otherwise dealing with the sonic ambiguities and transgressions we encounter in our daily lives, whilst foregrounding the cultural dispositions which demand and validate responses to noise. Defining noise as “dirt” also eliminates the gap between what we might call “dirt theory” and “noise theory,” so that existing literature about dirt has the potential to become literature about noise. We would suggest that writing on dirt, whatever its disciplinary origin, should be read and reinterpreted with the aim of generating new insights into noise.


It was a favorite phrase of Douglas’ to say that any explanation of dirt that was “piecemeal” was bound to fail (1966: vii; idem: 51). Pollution ideas, she wrote, could only be understood in relation to their broader and more significant whole. In this article we hope to have shown that any explanations of sonic behavior that are piecemeal are likewise bound to fail. “Noise” can only be understood in relation to the wider concept of dirt, and a Douglassian approach is invaluable because it can be used to weave examples of sonic pollution behavior from different geographies, centuries, and intellectual disciplines into a common theoretical thread. In fact, applying Douglas’ work on dirt to noise appears to offer something as valuable and extraordinary as it is unfashionable: the possibility of a grand narrative or unifying theory of noise.

By pointing to the value of Douglas’ work, we hope to have added to an existing set of anthropological contributions to sound studies (e.g. Erlmann 2004; Feld 1990, 1996, 2003; Friedner and Helmreich 2012; Greene and Porcello 2005; Helmreich 2007, 2010; Ingold 2007; Porcello 2004). Our discussion also suggests that through studying noise, researchers have an opportunity to move sound studies from the fringes of anthropology to its core, positioning it as a vital part of the cultural-investigative enterprise. Douglas writes that “since our common human condition does not give rise to a common pattern of pollution observances,” the differences between them can be studied “as an index of cultural patterning” (Douglas 1968: 55). If noise is dirt, as we suggest, then the phrase “pollution observances” also refers to attitudes towards sound. These can then also be considered an “index of cultural patterning,” and researchers could undertake comparative, cross-cultural “noise studies” to elucidate the differences between cultures. Importantly, this would be much more than simply a matter of finding out what counts as noise in various places; because mentions of noise/dirt necessarily invoke the schema of which they are not a part; unpicking pollution behavior reveals the wider structures and underlying binaries at play in societies. Noise, then, is a subject worthy of anthropological study because, as Mary Douglas almost once said, “where there is noise there is system.”