Sounds Secure: The effects of sound in conflict

Fiona Magowan, Professor of Anthropology and Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, QUB and recipient of a PaCCS Interdisciplinary Conflict Research Grant reflects on the effect of sound in conflict from the perspective of an anthropologist. 

With heightened tensions and increasing violence around the globe, the effects of conflict zones have re-sounding impacts. Digital media distributes and re-distributes sounds and narratives of conflict to new audiences, while the omnipresence of sound can convey expressions of violence, support narratives of resistance and contribute to peacebuilding. This research brings the role of sound centre stage in a variety of forms, and seeks to understand how it generates dynamics of resistance, resilience, revitalisation and reconciliation across distinct protracted conflict and post-conflict settings.

While analysts most commonly look to the socio-economic, political and organisational security risks associated with conflict, it is important for governments, policy-makers and civil society to consider alternative ways of pre-empting and averting national security threats by being culturally attuned and responsive to sounds and narratives of conflict and their corresponding sensory motivations.

A Queen’s University team, comprising five research Fellows of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, will address these issues through an integrated, comparative analysis of the impact of sound as noise, music, storytelling and digital media across conflict contexts in three continents.

The project focuses on the Middle East, Brazil and Northern Ireland, examining how communities that have experienced conflict respond to processes of musical activism, participatory music making, sonic arts and dramatised performances of resistance and reconciliation. As we gain rich insights into how communities use music, storytelling and digital media to respond to and counter security threats, as well as to transform national memories and discourses of violence, understanding these longer-term effects of sounds has the potential to generate new modes of empowerment and inform preventative strategies around violence and its aftermath.

This participatory research is co-designed with a range of stakeholders and community organisations who wish to appreciate how sound, music and storytelling can impact socio-economic conditions, reduce stress and incentivise cross-community and inter-group dialogue. We will showcase ‘Sounding Conflict’ through a final sound-art installation and exhibition in Derry and Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, a reappraisal of policy approaches to the intercultural effects of sounds of resistance and peacebuilding has the potential to place the arts centrally in policy-making as a core medium for promoting creative, resilient and empathic responses to conflict/postconflict situations.

Fiona Magowan is Professor of Anthropology and a Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interests span analyses of religion and belief; music, sound and movement; and art, emotion and the senses with a fieldwork focus among Yolngu of the Northern Territory of Aboriginal Australia, since 1990, as well as Stolen Generation artists in South Australia, and issues of music and identity in Northern Ireland. She has published seven books including, Christianity, Conflict, and Renewal in Australia and the Pacific (Brill 2016, co-edited with Carolyn Schwarz). She has been PI and CI respectively, on two ESRC funded projects and 1 HERA grant: Sensing Risk: Walker-Driver and Driver-Walker Interactions in the City (2006-2008); Creativity in a World of Movement (2010-2012) and the Domestic Moral Economy in the Asia Pacific (2011-2015).


Prof Pedro Rebelo (Professor of Sonic Arts, Sonic Arts Research Centre; Associate Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute, QUB), Prof Beverley Milton-Edwards (Professor of Politics; Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute, QUB), Dr. Stefanie Lehner (Lecturer in English; Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute, QUB) and Dr. Julie Norman (Queen’s University Research Fellow, Senator George J. Mitchell Institute).