About: FAQ

FAQs and Guiding Questions

  1. Why religion?
  2. Why sound?
  3. How were the recordings produced?
  4. How did we decide what to record?
  5. Who created the tags and filter categories?
  6. How were the recordings edited?
  7. Can anyone contribute a recording?
  8. Who funds this project?

Why religion?

The need for understanding religious pluralism has arguably never been greater. Given the remarkable diversity of American religious life and the increasing polarization of our politics, building a civic culture that is inclusive and valuing of all peoples constitutes one of the most pressing challenges we face today. The ARSP’s resources are intended to educate and engage multiple audiences around issues of religious diversity in ways that are accessible, compelling, and theoretically informed. Our intention is not to advocate for or against any particular religion, or for the value of religion in general, but to invite critical reflection on how and why we come to conceptualize religion in the ways that we do and the implications of this for American civic life.

As you explore the site, consider the following questions:

What do we learn by listening for religion? What, if anything, makes the varied recordings gathered here all examples of “religion”? Do you think all of the sounds on these recordings are religious? How do you think listening for religion is similar to or different from listening for race, class, gender, or other categories of difference? How are the recordings gathered here also shaped by these other categories?


Why sound?

From intimate conversations in religious buildings, to public conflicts over religious monuments in civic spaces, to ecstatic exclamations at a rodeo or racetrack, sound broadens and complicates the ways that we conceptualize and categorize religious places and practices. It invites us to imagine religion as something that people do, in particular times and spaces, rather than something that people “are” or “have.” Sound directs our attention to collective performances and embodied rituals, rather than approaching religion as solely a matter of interior conviction or private belief. As sound travels, it also crosses physical and social boundaries, allowing for contact in unexpected or new ways.

At the ARSP, we are interested both in how religious practitioners and communities make themselves heard and in how others listen and respond to these sonic performances. Sound functions for us as a key medium of contact and conflict, shaping the ways that diverse American religionists interact and engage with each other as part of their daily lives. As we encounter styles of practice and ways of life different from our own, pluralism gives rise to new sounds in our neighborhoods and invites new ways of hearing and listening.

As you explore the site, consider the following questions:

What kinds of reactions and responses did exploring our site and listening to our recordings elicit for you? What are some of the differences between listening to these recordings on our site and “being there” in person? In what ways do these recordings evoke a particular sense of place and time for you? What additional contextual information would you want in order to understand the meaning of these sounds for particular individuals and communities?


How were the recordings produced?

The recordings included on this site were produced by trained faculty, staff, and student researchers. All of our recordings are subject to quality control measures applied by our media content producer. In some cases, the recordings are products of sustained long-term engagement with the communities in question. In other cases, the recordings document “one-off” events or visits. In all cases, we obtain permission before recording, and researchers adhere to a strict set of ethical guidelines. In future phases of the project, we plan to collaborate even more fully with our community partners by equipping them with digital audio recorders and training them to document their own practices and traditions. Rather than rely solely on recordings produced by our team of researchers, we hope to share our knowledge and expertise, and to empower religious communities to tell their own stories.

We also plan to gradually expand the project’s geographic scope by partnering with other institutions and trained research teams. This will allow us to better attend to important regional variations in demographics, history, and religious practice.

As you explore the site, consider the following questions:

What kinds of ethical issues do you think our project raises? What sensitivities should we keep in mind when recording religious sounds? How might researchers best negotiate these issues? What are the advantages and disadvantages of inviting communities to produce the recordings themselves? How might recordings turn out differently if produced by “insiders” or “outsiders” to a community?


How did we decide what to record?

Our selections are robustly multi-religious across varied times and spaces. We have aimed to build a resource that is broadly comprehensive, comparative, and even a bit provocative. However, our selections are not meant to be exhaustive or representative of the diversity of American religious life. Instead, they reflect subjective choices made by our teams of faculty, staff, and student researchers, done as much as possible in consultation with the communities being recorded. Our recordists choose where to go, what to record, how to position themselves and their recorders, and how to edit their material. Our recordings should not be regarded as objective renderings of religion as it “really” is, but as the products of a whole series of interpretive decisions. In that sense, our recordings document not only the sounds of American religious life, but the process of researching religion, which is always driven, at least in part, by the particular questions, interests, and interpretive choices of the researcher.

While we have included examples of the formal sounds of religious institutions, such as prayer, chanting, and hymns, we have been especially interested in moving outside of traditional institutions and formal liturgy. Therefore, this is not an archive of “sacred music,” at least not as it is typically conceived. Instead, we seek to represent religion as fully entangled with and embedded within other aspects of social life, rather than as discrete or separate. In particular, we have concentrated on sounds that seemed “obviously” religious happening in non-traditionally religious spaces, and on sounds that might not seem “obviously” religious happening in more conventional religious spaces. Our goal is not to be definitive, but to be suggestive, even a bit playful and provocative, about what counts as religious sound.

As you explore the site, consider the following questions:

If given the opportunity, what kinds of religious sounds would you record? Are there “obvious” sounds that we’ve missed or examples that don’t belong here? Which sounds are most noticeable to you in your own community? Do you think these varied sounds should all be classified as religious? What is at stake for you in describing these sounds as such?


Who created the tags and filter categories?

Like the recordings themselves, the tags and filter categories are not objective designations, but the products of our own interpretive choices. We imagined what kinds of categories would be most useful or generative for organizing, classifying, and comparing our diverse materials. We tried to anticipate the expectations and interests of our varied audiences, while also allowing ourselves to be guided by our own theoretical commitments. For example, we expected users might want to search our recordings by “religious tradition,” but we also felt strongly that this should not be the only way of organizing and classifying our materials. By including other classification categories as well, such as space, time of day, and types of sounds, we hope new and possibly unexpected bases for comparison might emerge. For brief definitions of how we are using these categories, please see the ARSP Glossary.

Many of our recordings do not “fit” neatly into the categories we have constructed. The messy realities of lived experience cannot easily be reduced to a series of checkboxes. In some cases, we have had to make difficult choices about how best to label a particular recording. In other cases, these difficult fits have forced us to revise the categories themselves. We acknowledge the contestability of many of our choices and accept responsibility for them.

As you explore the site, consider the following questions:

What information do our tags offer about the recordings? What information did you want that was not available? Which categories were most generative or illuminating? What alternative categories would you propose? Are there particular recordings on our site that you might have tagged differently? When might it be desirable to invite religious communities to tag recordings themselves? In what contexts might that not be possible or even desirable?


How were the recordings edited?

Our editing process has multiple steps.

  • First, our researchers upload their raw recordings, along with metadata and fieldnotes, to our secure online storage system. Fieldnotes often designate particularly interesting or important content.
  • Second, our multimedia producer reviews new recordings, listening for informative or otherwise significant content (often using researcher fieldnotes as a guide), as well as audio quality.
  • Third, using professional audio editing software, our producer excerpts this material, making clips between 30 seconds and three minutes in duration. Once this material has been excerpted, it is amplified to industry standards, and any other necessary quality adjustments - such as the removal of pops and clicks - are made.
  • Additionally, our producer may combine clips and/or longer portions of recordings into interpretive audio collages or essays.

Throughout the editing process, we try to stay as true as possible to the original audio content. This is especially true in audio clips, which are primarily direct excerpts from original recordings; on occasion, clips include content from multiple recordings made at the same location on the same day. We are more liberal in our approach to interpretive collages and essays, which frequently combine materials from multiple locations and dates. However, these pieces are included only in the “Gallery” portion of our website, and are clearly labeled.

In all of our editing, we avoid using fancy filters and other tools that would significantly distort our audio content.

As you explore the site, consider the following questions:

What can you learn from a 30-second to 3-minute long clip? How should an editor decide what to include and what to leave out? Should community members be involved in the editing process? What are some of the ethical considerations involved in editing recordings of religious sounds? How is editing short excerpts or clips different from producing longer interpretive collages or audio essays?

Can anyone contribute a recording?

For now, we do not plan to utilize open crowdsourcing as a method for expanding our archive. Many existing digital soundmapping projects rely on crowdsourcing, and we appreciate their democratizing impulse. Yet, there are also many documented problems with crowdsourcing. For example, crowdsourcing makes it difficult to ensure consistency in audio recording quality or in adherence to ethical guidelines. Crowdsourcing also raises issues of access and diversity. Producing high-quality field recordings requires time and resources. Studies have found that contributors to crowdsourced projects tend to be disproportionately white and male. That being said, we are eager to accept suggestions from users about particular sounds, practices, and communities that we might aim to record in the future. Please use our contact form to offer your suggestions.

Regarding our decision about crowdsourcing, consider the following questions:

Do our concerns about crowdsourcing outweigh the potential benefits? How might we best address our concerns? What are the advantages and disadvantages of relying only on trained university researchers?


Who funds this project?

The American Religious Sounds Project is supported by a generous grant to OSU’s Center for the Study of Religion from the Henry Luce Foundation. Established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the foundation seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities. Other support has been provided by the Humanities Without Walls Consortium, based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Material support is also provided by Michigan State University and The Ohio State University.