About: Ethics Statement


Recording and publishing the sounds of religion raises a number of ethical issues. At the American Religious Sounds Project, we strove for awareness and thoughtful discussion of these concerns. We also sought to develop a methodology that was sensitive to the communities we documented and the audiences we hoped to engage. The following explores some of the pressing questions our research team encountered.

Community selection

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

With this in mind, the ARSP made a conscious effort to produce work of both breadth and depth. We took 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 looked and listened beyond the most accessible communities - those that spoke our same language or those whose beliefs were most familiar.

At the same time, the ARSP acknowledged and addressed 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 sought to gather a diverse collection of religious sounds from within our communities.

Selecting what to record

A similar concern arose when we decided what constituted a “religious” sound, and consequently, what was important for our researchers to record in a given community.

Some of the ARSP’s most valuable insights surfaced 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 had their own perceptions of which sounds were religious, as well as preferences for how these sounds were documented and represented. We often relied on community members’ descriptions of the sounds and the meaning of the sounds for the religious group. On more than one occasion we returned to religious groups for a second recording when the members requested that we include additional religious sounds from their community that they felt 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 was part of the ongoing conversations that we had with our research teams and the communities that we recorded.

The work of the ARSP was 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. We strove to incorporate community perspectives whenever possible.

Editing and combinations of sounds

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

Ethical concerns inevitably arise when documentary material is altered, including those about fair and accurate representation. How does one responsibly decide which content to clip from a recording, which content is representative of the community or event documented? How does one ensure that the content is not misleading? There were a number of guidelines our researchers and producers followed when editing original material.

  • First, when making clips from recordings, we stayed as true as possible to original content. Our editing was minimal, primarily involving amplification, removal of accidental noises, and other basic adjustments. We did not apply fancy filters or distortions.
  • Second, we provided 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 maintained a comprehensive archive of original, unedited recordings, housed at the Vincent Voice Library at Michigan State University. This full archive is accessible to the public.
  • Fourth, on the occasions when we creatively combined material into collages, the resulting pieces are clearly noted as such.
  • Lastly, when any edited material was potentially problematic, we consulted with community members.


Classifying sounds

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

In order to catalogue the religious sounds that we gathered, we 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 evolved with our project. We added new categories and modified existing ones as we gathered new data and solicited community input. For descriptions of these categories, please visit our Glossary.

Tagging and categorizing are powerful research tools with 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 forced us to decide which tags to prioritize and use. Additionally, while we intended for the language of our tags to be neutral, we knew they might carry unanticipated connotations for community members.

We acknowledge these concerns and kept them in mind as we collected new recordings, cultivated new community partnerships, and refined our tagging procedures.  

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 did our best to acknowledge and ameliorate these factors. For instance, when we didn’t understand the language spoken by community members, we collaborated with someone who did, who helped us communicate more clearly with those around us. When we encountered groups whose ideologies seemed foreign or offensive to us, we strove to listen to community members, rather than judge or challenge them. In all communities, we aimed to heed cultural norms and expectations, rather than abiding by our own.

If at any point in our relationship with a community the members wished to end the collaboration or decline further participation, we honored those requests.

Privacy and consent

The American Religious Sounds Project operated 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 varied by community and situation.

In small communal settings, we directly asked 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 asked a community leader to provide a similar introduction to all those present. In public settings, such as protests or fairs, where it was often impractical to obtain everyone’s permission, we endeavored to make our presence known. We did not record stealthily, and we carried our recorders openly. We tried to avoid recording individual conversations or identifiable voices without first obtaining permission.

All of our researchers handed out printed documents to explain our project and allowed community members to make informed choices about whether or not they wanted to participate. Whenever possible, we distributed informational postcards about the project, which included our contact information for questions and concerns.

Audio copyright and usage

Sermons, music, performances, and many other varieties of religious sound often constitute intellectual and creative property. Therefore, we made every effort to secure any needed rights to make use of the materials that we recorded. The ARSP used recordings only in a non-commercial manner. The core purposes of our project were educational, and we did not sell or otherwise profit from any of the recordings and edited clips/collages that we produced. 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.