The Gift: Thoughts on Ethnographic Exchange

In 1991, Steven Feld released a recording based on his fieldwork in the Bosavi Rainforest. Called Voices of the Rainforest, the recording is a “soundscape of a day in the life of the Kaluli people of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea.” The recording was originally released on the Rykodisc label and produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, making it one of the most curious ethnomusicological recordings of all time: it falls in the in-between space bounded on one side by the expansive (and often exploitative) “global pop” industry and on the other by the small cottage industry of field recordings whose primary audience consists of a handful of academic libraries and ethnomusicology specialists.

Stemming from its “in-between” status, Feld devised an ingenious way to navigate the perilous waters of the recording industry. At the same time as he released Voices of the Rainforest, Feld created the non-profit Bosavi People’s Fund to receive all royalties from the sale of the record (as well as from two additional releases of field recordings and Feld’s seminal book Sound and Sentiment). In a fragmented and exploitative international recording industry that was in no way designed to remunerate Feld’s ethnographic interlocutors, Feld was thus able to ensure that his work would directly benefit the people of Papua New Guinea:

Bosavi People’s Fund grants have supported locally defined educational and social initiatives, as well as the publication of the Bosavi-English-Tok Pisin Dictionary, both a scholarly document and an educational resource for the Bosavi community school. Bosavi People’s Fund grants also benefit the Music Department of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.

The Bosavi People’s Fund remains the archetype of ethnomusicological reciprocity, a unique way of ensuring a two-way exchange of benefit between an ethnographer and the people on whom he has built his academic career. Unsurprisingly, Feld’s sense of responsibility to the Kaluli people has hardly been typical of anthropological encounters. Ethnomusicology, like many, if not all, social sciences, was historically characterized by a false belief in the ethnographer’s neutrality and objectivity, which was accompanied by a deeply colonialist mindset. The ethnographer goes to a place, he observes and speaks with its inhabitants, he leaves to write up his findings, and he assumes that he owes nothing to the people on whom he builds his scholarly reputation.1)I should point out that my use of masculine pronouns here is deliberate, intended to call attention to enduring patriarchal normatively of much academic discourse.

Fortunately, this mindset has changed radically in recent decades. Aspiring ethnographers learn not only about the process of conducting ethnographic research, but also about the ethics of research and representation of others. Ethnography now is far less based on the notion of the benevolent colonialist than on a model of reciprocal exchange in which the researcher is always acutely aware of his or her obligations and responsibilities to the people who participate in the research.

Backstage at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo by the author.
Backstage at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo by the author.

These issues of mutual exchange and ethical obligation have been on my mind quite a bit lately, as I return to the site of my own ethnographic research in London. I conducted research in classical music recording studios during several visits from 2008 to 2010, and during that time I had the privilege of meeting some wonderful producers and engineers, watching them work, and learning about how their work fits into the larger recording industry. Returning now, for the first time in five years, I am more than ever acutely aware of some of the particular problems that the ethnographer might face when conducting research about modern industries and corporations—namely, the sorts of reciprocal exchange that are necessary within the ethnographer’s ethical bounds are often inadequate for ethnographic encounters with individuals from these sorts of “high” cultural institutions.2)By “high” culture here, I do not mean the rather antiquated idea of “art” versus “popular” music, for example. Rather, I refer to the sorts of industrial and corporate formations that characterize much modern culture—what Adorno famously and unfavorably referred to as “the culture industry.”

In short, as an ethnographer, I have very little to offer in exchange for access to the studios and individuals about whom I wish to write. I cannot follow Feld’s model and offer my interlocutors distribution of their recordings in my home country, and the royalties that would result: their work is already commercially distributed in the United States (and many other countries around the world). The idea of creating a foundation to benefit classical music recordists sounds patently absurd. Even smaller forms of exchange, the sorts of gift-giving that continues to characterize ethnographic work in many areas, seems silly and inadequate when dealing with individuals who are financially comfortable and professionally respected. Because of the great distance between myself, in the U.S., and the individuals I wrote about, in the U.K., it would be difficult for me even to forge ongoing professional ties, as some of my colleagues from British academia have done.

Of course, even given this obstacle of mutual exchange, in my initial research several years ago I was far more successful than I had any right to expect. People in the recording industry were remarkably kind to me, generous with their time and inviting me along to observe recording sessions. (Whether this is because I’m simply unable to read the subtle cues of British politeness—or, for that matter, any implied and unstated social cues—I cannot know.)

This is all a very personal and perhaps solipsistic reflection on what it means to do ethnography, and it may be the case that such problems are of little concern to ethnographic fields. (Certainly I wouldn’t claim that anyone should care at all about my own personal troubles here.) But I do worry that this problem, which is persistent in ethnographic research of this sort, ultimately has the effect of narrowing the range of ethnographic inquiry, and perhaps inadvertently reproduces scholarly canons and limits the value of what ethnomusicology can contribute to intellectual discourse. Personally, I don’t see an easy way out of this problem. (How many times, speaking with colleagues who study popular music, have we bemoaned the inability of ethnomusicologists to produce a truly insightful study of mainstream music industries?) All I can offer, it seems, is what I hope will be an honest and insightful analysis of the art of individuals whose work I have come to respect very much.

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References   [ + ]

1. I should point out that my use of masculine pronouns here is deliberate, intended to call attention to enduring patriarchal normatively of much academic discourse.
2. By “high” culture here, I do not mean the rather antiquated idea of “art” versus “popular” music, for example. Rather, I refer to the sorts of industrial and corporate formations that characterize much modern culture—what Adorno famously and unfavorably referred to as “the culture industry.”

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