About: Ethics Statement


Recording and publishing the sounds of religion raises a number of ethical issues. As the American Religious Sounds Project evolves, we strive for awareness and thoughtful discussion of these concerns, as well as a methodology that is sensitive to both the communities we document and the audiences we engage. The following explores some of the pressing questions our research team has encountered.

Community selection

There are multiple reasons why we choose to record specific religious communities. Sometimes we seek communities that are participating in activities that we wish to document, other times we select communities as the result of general outreach on the part of members of our team or from members of a given religious community. We have selected religious groups that fall under research themes (such as mobile ministries) and we have selected groups when they have made themselves publicly visible around a current event. We recognize that the decision to document and represent religious communities is never value-free. Every time we make a selection, we run the risk of implying the legitimacy or importance of some religious groups over others.  

With this in mind, the ARSP makes a conscious effort to produce work of both breadth and depth. We take an expansive approach to religion, seeking to record diverse examples of religious sounds enacted by people of multiple traditions, genders, ethnicities, languages, and nationalities. We also look and listen beyond the most accessible communities - those that speak our same language or those whose beliefs are most familiar.

At the same time, the ARSP also openly acknowledges – and works to address – inherent limitations to our fieldwork, including geographic constraints, staff size, and the unpredictable amenability of communities. We do not claim that our sound archive is representative of all or even most religious sounds in the communities in which we work. Rather, we seek to gather a diverse collection of religious sounds from within our communities.

Selecting what to record

A similar concern arises when we decide what constitutes a “religious” sound, and consequently, what is important for our researchers to record in a given community.

Some of the ARSP’s most valuable insights have arisen from recordings of unexpected or non-traditional religious sounds, such as the chatter of temple members as they prepare a meal together, or the squishing noise made by participants in a Virgin of Guadalupe procession as they trudge through the snow. Community members, however, often have their own perceptions of which sounds are religious, as well as preferences for how these sounds are documented and represented. We often rely on community members’ descriptions of the sounds and the meaning of the sounds for the religious group. On more than one occasion we have returned to religious groups for a second recording when the members have requested that we include additional religious sounds from their community that they feel would more aptly represent their group on a publicly accessible platform. The choice of what defines a religious sound in a particular context as well as which sound best represents a religious group is part of the ongoing conversations that we have with our research teams and the communities that we record.

The work of the ARSP is a careful balancing act between honoring community sensitivity and listening with our own critical, interpretive ears. We recognize that our recording choices imply certain value judgments, and we strive to incorporate community perspectives whenever possible.

Editing and combinations of sounds

The ARSP centers on an interactive database of short audio clips, all of which have been extracted from longer raw field recordings. Another significant feature of the project is our selection of curated exhibits and interpretive collages, each made by digitally combining segments from original recordings. We feel such editing is necessary to our work, as it allows us to call attention to sonic patterns, relationships, and points of import that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Ethical concerns inevitably arise when documentary material is altered, including those about fair and accurate representation. How do we responsibly decide which content to clip from a recording, which content is representative of the community or event documented? How do we ensure that our content is not misleading? With these kinds of questions in mind, there are a number of guidelines our researchers and producers follow when editing original material.

  • First, when making clips from recordings, we stay as true as possible to original content. Our editing is minimal, primarily involving amplification, removal of accidental noises, and other basic adjustments. We do not apply fancy filters or distortions.
  • Second, we provide textual and visual context for clips in our database. Each is accompanied by details of time and location, explanatory writing derived from researcher field notes, and often, by photographs of the event or practice recorded.
  • Third, to complement our shorter clips, we maintain a comprehensive archive of original, unedited recordings, to which visitors may request access in order to listen to sounds in their initial context.
  • Fourth, on the occasions when we creatively combine material into collages, the resulting pieces are clearly noted as such.
  • Lastly, when any edited material is potentially problematic, we consult with community members.


Classifying sounds

From the start of our project, we have engaged in conversations about how best to organize our data. At the center of this conversation is our use of digital tagging as both an ethical and research-compatible practice.

In order to catalogue the religious sounds that we have gathered, we have created tags and filter categories related to religious traditions, types of sounds, locations, times and dates, and other fields that we imagined would be relevant to future researchers who explore our site. Our tagging system has evolved with our project. We have added new categories and modified existing ones as we have gathered new data and solicited community input. For descriptions of these categories, please visit our Glossary.

Tagging and categorizing are powerful research tools with both great potential and some clear deficiencies. On the one hand, tagging and filtering allows visitors to our site to quickly search and explore our sonic archive, and to find unique relationships among sets of data. These tools, however, also construct a paradigm that may exclude or marginalize some religious sounds, and potentially, by extension, the communities that they represent. Also problematic is the process of categorizing recordings that contain multiple kinds of sound, which forces us to decide which tags to prioritize and use. Additionally, while we intend for the language of our tags be neutral, they may carry unanticipated connotations for community members.

We acknowledge these potential issues and are continually reviewing our tagging practices in relation to our ongoing collection of recordings and community partners, making adjustments as we grow.  

Recognizing our biases and privileges as researchers

We recognize that as researchers, we carry biases and privileges, including the power to shape how a community is portrayed. These issues may become especially prominent in certain communities - such as those that do not speak our language, those of different socioeconomic status, and those whose beliefs differ from - or even clash with - our own.

In each situation, we do our best to acknowledge and ameliorate these factors. For instance, when we don’t understand the language spoken by community members, we collaborate with someone who does, who can help us communicate more clearly with those around us. When we encounter groups whose ideologies may seem foreign or offensive to us, we try to set our own beliefs aside; we strive to listen to community members, rather than judge or challenge them. In all communities, we also aim to heed cultural norms and expectations, rather than abiding by our own.

If at any point in our relationship with a community the members wish to end the collaboration or decline further participation, we will honor those wishes.

Privacy and consent

The American Religious Sounds Project operates with the approval of the Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) of both Ohio State and Michigan State Universities. Our process for obtaining permission to record and use audio materials varies by community and situation.

In small communal settings, we directly ask people for permission to record, also informing them about the scope of our project and potential uses of our recorded material. In larger communal settings, we ask a community leader to provide a similar introduction to all those present. In public settings, such as protests or fairs, where it is often impractical to obtain everyone’s permission, we endeavor to make our presence known. We do not record stealthily, and we carry our recorders openly. We try to avoid recording individual conversations or identifiable voices without first obtaining permission.

All of our researchers hand out printed documents to explain our project and allow community members to make an informed choice about whether or not they would like to participate. Whenever possible, we distribute informational postcards about the project, which includes our contact information for questions and concerns.

In all situations, anyone who does not wish to participate in our project has the opportunity to alert us, and we will avoid recording their voices in an identifiable way.

Audio copyright and usage

Sermons, music, performances, and many other varieties of religious sound often constitute intellectual and creative property. Therefore, we make every effort to secure any needed rights to make use of the materials that we record. The ARSP uses recordings only in a non-commercial manner. The core purposes of our project are educational, and we do not sell or otherwise profit from the recordings and edited clips/collages that we produce. Likewise, visitors to our site are not permitted to download or distribute our materials without express written permission. Participants may contact us at any time with concerns, and if necessary, we can remove or adjust the material in question.