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  • Writer's pictureSarica Robyn

The Voice and its Relevance

Visual culture is a key arena in which symbolic forms travel across time and space, constituting self, identity and subjectivity. The sheer affordability of various visual media technologies cements their importance in mediating experiences. With the explosion of social media, the need to visually document and chronicle our everyday lives in the form of photographs on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter has all but emphasised the importance and dominance of the visual.

The result of this fascination with the visual is the neglect of research on technology related to the voice. While consumers engage with voice recognition technology on Apple and voice search on Google apps, the voice remains overshadowed by explosive visual media.

Yet, media forms such as the radio or podcasts can relate to large-scale political structures and are a rich source in which to explore issues concerning kinship, political agency and subjectivity. In fact, anthropologists are increasingly exploring the relation between media forms of the voice and broader political conditions, using ethnography to study symbolic forms in their full political context.

The Voice

The voice is a ubiquitous medium of communicative interaction, channel of social contact and a central vehicle for the modern interiorised self. Interestingly, in its ability to disseminate, broadcast and distribute the human voice across time and space, the medium of radio has often been politicised or at least utilised for purposes beyond mere “broadcast talk”.

The voice is often constructed in two ways:

(i) ‘Having a voice’ within political representation or authorial roles

(ii) ‘Claiming one’s voice’ in epistemological questions about relations among identity and the self, as identified by Spivak in her seminal piece, ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1988).

The power dimensions associated with the voice are salient. Gendered and racialised voices in Western cultural production, such as films, music, literature and theatre, have often presented inarticulacy and powerless vocalities, controlled by authorial male or white voices.

So what can the radio tell us about the voice?

The radio is a unique media technology as its directness and transparency derives from the material technology of sound recording (its indexical features), the specific features of its broadcast, but crucially, the sociohistorical and political context in which these broadcasts take place.

It sheds light on three key issues:

(i) The multivocality of voice

(ii) The ideologies of voice (and radio as an arena for these ideologies to be negotiated)

(iii) The power of the medium of radio due to its ability to disseminate, broadcast and distribute the human voice across time and space in various social, cultural and political contexts.


Fisher’s (2009) ethnography of indigenous-run stations in Aboriginal Australia investigates the interaction between broadcast media and geographical dispersal of kin networks in a wider political context of indigenous kinship in Australia.

After a century of state policies that removed children from their families, as well as the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal people incarcerated in Australia’s prisons, Aboriginal kinship has been marked by a frequent separation of Indigenous people from kin and community.

Within this political context, Fisher (2015) focuses on call-in request shows to reveal both kinship networks and radio networks.

In these programmes, a process of “linking people up” operates through the radio as listeners are encouraged to call in and address their families with greetings. This process is a means of celebrating kinship connections as well as providing a powerful tool through which Aboriginal Australians can reproduce their relationships with one another.

Indeed, Fisher’s anthropological study of the radio contributes a significant analysis of the political subjectivity of Aboriginals: kinship as a means of shaping an Aboriginal polity. Kinship carries a normative burden, acting as a vehicle of Indigenous cultural reproduction.

With this notion of kinship in mind, the radio indexes intimate relations. There is an important duality to this relationship: the radio provides a stage for affective aspects of Aboriginal kinship and this kinship animates an Intra-Aboriginal radio network.

So what does this tell us about voice-related technology?

Paying attention to the role of the voice with regard to political order is paramount.

Broadcast radio stations have proven to be key staging points for both governmental projects and social movements and scholars have highlighted the use of radio transmitters as tools to promote development and democracy by a variety of communities and NGOs (Bessire, 2013).

While there is reason to understand the ocularcentrism of academic and technological research, we need to acknowledge the importance of the voice, its associated viscerality and the ways in which voice-related technology can play a significant role in its distribution and dissemination.


Bessire, L., Fisher, D. (2013). The Anthropology of Radio Fields. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 363-378.

Fisher, D. (2009). Mediating Kinship: Country, Family, and Radio in Northern Australia. Cultural Anthropology 24(2): 280-312.

Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the Subaltern Speak?

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