Street Sounds or an Ear to the Street by Peter Dobbs

Credit : Lisa Reith

On the Masters in Social Research I am undertaking at Goldsmiths, University of London we were tasked with studying ‘street life’ and conducting ethnographic fieldwork on Lewisham Way, a busy traffic thoroughfare running between New Cross and Lewisham Gateway.

Initially, the plan was to observe the comings and goings of those engaging with the public spaces, that sit along the street, and to interview a selection of people to capture their views and everyday experiences of life on Lewisham Way. However, I felt this approach exposed some methodological challenges. Firstly, our data collection plan over-relied on observation and interviewing. Would this satisfy the ethos of the task, to explore new ideas and use elements of creativity, to take a few risks? I felt not. Secondly, how to add to our existing planned methods to provide for a truly multisensory approach. Finally, how to ensure our data collection strategy enables us to provide a truly authentic portrait of life along Lewisham Way.

I had recently read Hurdley’s (2010) description of how she had stumbled across the contribution to data collection and analysis of capturing the sounds of the public space she was researching; the corridors within the institution she worked at. This provided me with my lightbulb moment. Hurdley noticed in her recorded interviews how the background noises provided a real and authentic context for what she was analysing, which complemented the views and experiences of those who used the spaces. What she succeeded in achieving was to bring the research setting into the analysis, ‘bringing public places rather than behavior, to the foreground of social enquiry’ (Hurdley, 2010:253). I decided, therefore, to focus on the sounds of Lewisham Way. A dominant aspect of any experience of the street, one that immediately impacts the senses are the sounds of the traffic; how it flows and fluctuates, how it sets the context for the social world that exists amongst it. To capture this, to create soundscapes and sound images (Back 2010) was something I decided to experiment with on my fieldwork activity and to address the methodological challenges I faced.

And so, with digital recording device in hand, I was let loose onto Lewisham Way to carry out my ethnographic fieldwork exercise. I decided to make intermittent recordings, rather than record for long periods of time, to capture specific sounds, the noises that stood out amongst the more general sounds of the traffic. I felt that one long uninterrupted recording would be monotonous and make transcribing more arduous. I recorded around 20 segments, making notes of where I was at the time and what I was observing. I referenced each set of notes to the file number displayed on the digital recorder.

On returning home I wrote up what I had experienced. With the help of playing back the recorded files, and the brief notes I had taken, I was able to conjure up evocative images in my mind of walking along Lewisham Way. This helped make my written descriptions accurate and what felt like a truly authentic account. Below is an extract from the description I wrote.

As I walked along the pavement, I noticed how the rhythm and tempo of the sound of the traffic changes constantly, as it ebbs and flows along Lewisham Way. There is very rarely silence, but a constant noise, characterized by the crescendos of the roar of each vehicle as it passes. This constant yet intermittent roar of the flow of passing traffic becomes overwhelming after a while. The fleeting sounds that can be heard, either just below the noise of the traffic or in the momentary lulls that arise within the gaps between passing vehicles, provide some light relief; snippets of conversation between the students waiting at the bus stop outside the College; children escorted by a parent shouting farewells to their friends on their way home from school;, birdsong from the trees arching over the street; the loud music emanating from a passing car; and even the squeaky wheels on the trolley pulled along by the man in the blue, vintage army coat. These are all signs and sounds of a social world existing alongside the road’s constant flow of traffic, evidence of people leading their lives amongst the flow’s dominant cacophony of noise. Entering a shop brings relief from the noise of the traffic. Even the chintzy, piped supermarket music in Asda provides a solace for the ears. In most shops though the roar can still be heard, even with the door closed, as an arhythmic muffled background noise.

My fieldwork approach therefore aimed at ‘de-peopling’ the research habitus (Hurdley, 2010) by avoiding capturing the voices, verbalized thoughts, experiences and understandings of those that engage with Lewisham Way, and using sound rather than observed sights.  However, the paradox here is of course to fully understand and appreciate the real and authentic social world of city streets, those streets need to be peopled, there must be ‘eyes upon the street’, (Jacobs, 1961). Those eyes belong to what Jacobs calls the natural proprietors, those who reside in the buildings along the street, and strangers, those who engage with it. Perhaps we should add also the need for ears on the street, for although the sights of what we see provide crucial evidence for analysis, the sounds can complete our understanding of its social activities and interactions. Collecting these sounds, to compliment what researchers and people see, and how they interpret and verbalise their experiences, adds to the texture of the data. This creates an extra dimension which provides for a truly multisensory analysis of city life : where the ordinary sounds of the traffic and the life that exists within and alongside it can contribute to delivering a truly extraordinary portrayal of the vibrancy of city life.  And for this the risk was certainly worth taking.

Peter Dobbs is a student on the Social Research Masters programme at Goldsmiths University. I live just off Lewisham Way and grew up in the area. I have known and used this busy, noisy and somewhat scruffy street since the late 1970s, so the project we undertook on it was close to my heart.






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