This is a very short, non-ethnographic, post about the authority of sound and how ethnographers often gave favor to oral interactions at the sake of text. Essentially, this runs counter to what most other disciplines have, which is essentially the authority of text over all other sensory representations. I suspect this has mostly to do with some conceived idea that text is less open to interpretation, more filtered to remove ambiguity, that sort of thing.

However, I will let the following make the case that audio alone offers something approaching a comprehensive representation of a place and time. Below (excuse the visuals; this user used them to embed it somewhere) is the sound of people at work. It is at the University of Ghana, Legon in 1975. It is the sound of office workers doing what might be otherwise a very mundane, repetitive task: cancelling stamps. However, they have turned work into celebration, mundanity into some sort of song. I have it on my iPod and it paints one impressive picture of what that office looks like, what it sounds like, perfectly illustrative. Tell me this audio is not authoritative.


I visited the University of Ghana (we have a lot of content partners there) as part of the subject of my ethnographic study, eLearning Africa in 2008. I did a few workshops for librarians from across the county (without Internet and temporarily powered by a generator). I cannot imagine it looks all that different than it did in 1975. Below is an iamge from the campus. Each of the departments had their own slogan and this one just spoke to me.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

2 thoughts on “The Sound of Work in Ghana: Authority and Context”
  1. Michael,

    (thanks for your comments on my presentation)
    I enjoyed you presentation – to be honest, I often
    balk at e- features on Africa as for most of the time
    I consider them simply to be a pithy and worthy reports
    from the likes of The Guardian and the BBC; a meme that
    suddenly is simply followed and rarely is there a realisation
    that Africa is actually a continent, just the same way that
    Europe is.

    Yours, however, considers the aspects of freedom and
    libertion – yes, entrepeneurship and commerce was featured
    but ‘social glue’ and ‘greater good’ were predominant
    and important non-capitalist motivators. The use of YouTube
    to provide accounts (note the plural) was superior to simple
    Western-sourced narratives.

    Yes, industry and commerce is necessary in present day economical
    models….but I like the fact that your piece ended with truly
    altruistic ideals.

    my two-cents worth


    1. Thanks for this, Hugh. Glad to know that spirit of liberation and optimism got through. I agree that major media outlets give cursory coverage to this sort of stuff and invariably simplify incredibly complex issues to human interest stories, etc. And yes how many times people refer to Africa as a country. They are missing so much of a really incredible story there, the palpable energy on the ground. But generally an optimistic narrative doesn’t fit in to the way we view Africa. See this for a really good guide on how to write about Africa (sarcastic):

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