Approaching Ethnographic Research about Human Interaction as Making Music Together

  • William K. Rawlins
Keywords: aesthetics of interpersonal communication; ethnographic research; making music; listening; attunement; assemblage; rhythm.


Abstract. This presentation develops the idea of perceiving and practicing ethnographic research through the lens of music-making. I propose that the shared experience of making music together richly embodies aesthetic qualities of communication and simultaneously serves as a vivid metaphor for understanding and participating in interpersonal communication in ethnographic work. I begin by describing an aesthetics of interpersonal communication and the commitment to aesthetic practices and ideals in reflexively developing understandings with other persons. Then I offer and initially explore four tenets of approaching ethnographic research about human interaction as aesthetic activities of making music together to accomplish this stance. First, pursuing ethnographic dialogue as musical requires active involvement and inclusion of all parties in the emerging process of composition, improvisation, and performance. Adopting this stance towards ethnographic inquiry suggests practices for actively communicating respect for our co-participants in research, encouraging their involvement as equals in the co-creation of understandings, and expressing gratitude for the insights they embody and impart. Second, pursuing ethnographic conversations as musical emphasizes the creative, ethical, and mutually affirming significance of engaged listening. Fully embracing a commitment to listening heightens our effectiveness as ethnographers by enhancing our receptivity to other persons’ words and nonverbal behaviors in speaking with and attuning ourselves to them. Doing so requires a commitment to be completely available while in the presence of another person. Third, while doing the work of ethnography as musical creation, we also reflexively undergo the incremental and culminating results of our efforts in co-creating an assemblage. I argue that this orientation toward fashioning and experiencing understandings that all parties have been involved in making reduces our detachment and humanizes the process and products of ethnographic research. Fourth, every ethnographic encounter involves co-achieving rhythm and the connections of musical temporality and form. Emphasizing form, rhythm, and shared music-making attunes us to both the temporal unfolding and the perceived wholeness of our communicative activities. In pursuing ethnographic research, we should attend carefully to how we aesthetically embody the lived experiences of multiple modes of temporality, such as calendar and clock time, sequenced and simultaneously configured events, the dramatic timing of occurrences, and the musicality of human interaction. Doing so honors the ways of life at stake in our investigation and the co-lived nature of the diverse temporal realities composing ethnographic inquiry. Ethnographic research involves creative communicative endeavors accomplished with others. As such, there are constructive implications of cultivating imagination, creativity, dialogical engagement, listening, mutual attunement, rhythmic responsiveness, improvisation, answerability, and accountability to each other as communicators for solving problems and enhancing everyday communication. I argue that it is vital to recognize the interconnection of aesthetic activities with everyday life and the opportunity to learn and create possible understandings together in ethnographic inquiry.