Caring through Sound and Silence: Technology and the Sound of Everyday Life in Homes for the Elderly


  • Carla Greubel Utrecht University



elder institutions, ethnography, sound and silence, technology, Sound Studies


Literature on sounds inside institutions has shown that sounds are indispensable to the working of hospitals, schools, prisons, and other institutional environments. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in three eldercare homes in Germany this article suggests that the more permanent care context of institutional homes for the elderly compared to a hospital setting is decisive for people’s interpretation of and engagement with sounds. This is true at multiple levels, such as “monitory listening,” the use of “music as a technology of self,” or sounds as a tool of care. In fact, in this long-term care context even silences prompt action. Based on their experience with individual residents, for example, caregivers can direct their monitory listening not only to existing sounds, but also to the silence of expected but absent sounds. Throughout the article, additional consideration is given to the role of the technologies that produce the sounds, showing how in their design and functioning they shape, complement or prevent people’s attention to sound and silence. Finally, I propose that research is needed that goes beyond an understanding of silence as a healing environment for the vulnerable and sick and instead attends to the complexity of this acoustic event within the context of eldercare homes.

Author Biography

Carla Greubel, Utrecht University

Carla Greubel is a research assistant in the ERC funded Medical Anthropology project “Digital Doctors” at Maastricht University. She holds an MA in Science & Technology Studies from Maastricht University. Currently she is applying for a PhD scholarship to conduct further ethnographic research the role of technologies and their sounds in institutional and domestic care for the elderly.


Adatia, Safina, Susan Law, and Jeannie Haggerty. 2014. “Room for Improvement: Noise on a Maternity Ward.” Health Services Research 14: 604.

Bijsterveld, Karin. 2019. Sonic Skills: Listening for Knowledge in Science, Medicine and Engineering (1920s–Present). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cachia, Amanda. 2015. “LOUD Silence: Turning up the Volume on Deaf Voice.” The Senses & Society 10, no 3: 321-40.

DeNora, Tia. 2000. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Denzin, Norman. 2019. “Sights and Sounds on Xmas Eve in a Midwest Nursing Home and Renewal Center.” Qualitative Inquiry 00, no 0: 1–2.

Feld, Steven. 1996. “Waterfalls of Song: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea.” In Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso, 91-135. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Friedner, Michele and Stefan Helmreich. 2012. “Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies.” The Senses & Society 7, no 1: 72–86.

Gallagher, Michael. 2010. “Are Schools Panoptic?” Surveillance and Society 7, no 3/4: 262-72.

----. 2011. “Sound, Space and Power in a Primary School.” Social and Cultural Geography 12, no 1: 47-61.

Guillebaud, Christine. 2017. “Introduction: Multiple Listenings. Anthropology of Sound Worlds.” In Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound, edited by Christine Guillebaud, 1-18. New-York: Routledge.

Gunaratman, Yasmin. 2009. “Auditory Space, Ethics and Hospitality: ‘Noise’, Alterity and Care at the End of Life.” Body & Society 15, no 4: 1-19.

Harris, Anna. 2015a. “Eliciting Sound Memories.” The Public Historian 37, no 4: 14–31.

----. 2015b. “Sounding Disease: Guest Blog at Sociology of Diagnosis website.” Accessed May 30, 2019.

Heine, Rolf. 2009. “Die Zwölf Sinne.” Accessed January 13, 2020.

Hsieh, Jennifer. 2019. “Piano Transductions: Music, Sound and Noise in Urban Taiwan.” Sound Studies 5, no 1: 4-21.

Johnson, Patricia, and Lisa Thornhill. 2006. “Noise Reduction in the Hospital Setting.” Journal of Nursing Care Quality 21, no 4: 295–97.

Lutz, Peter A. 2015. “Multivalent Moves in Senior Home Care: From Surveillance to Care-Valence.” Anthropology & Aging 36, no 2: 145-63.

Pinch, Trevor, and Karin Bijsterveld, eds. 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rice, Tom. 2013. Hearing and the Hospital: Sound, Listening, Knowledge and Experience. Canon Pyon: Sean Kingston Publishing.

----. 2016. “Sounds Inside: Prison, Prisoners and Acoustical Agency.” Sound Studies 2, no 1: 6-20.

----. 2018. “Acoustemology.” In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Hilary Callan. London: Wiley.

Samuels, David, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello. 2010. “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 329-45.

Serematakis, Nadia. 1994. “Implications.” In The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity, edited by Nadia Serematakis, 123-54. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Skinner, Jonathan. 2013. “Social Dance for Successful Aging: The Practice of Health, Happiness, and Social Inclusion Amongst Senior Citizens.” Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(1): 18-29.

Sterne, Jonathan, ed. 2012. The Sound Studies Reader. Abingdon: Routledge.

Supper, Alexandra and Karin Bijsterveld. 2015. “Sounds Convincing: Modes of Listening and Sonic Skills in Knowledge Making.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 40, no 2: 124-44.

Thompson, Emily. 2002. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Truax, Barry. 2001. Acoustic Communication. Westport, Connecticut: Ablex Publishing.

Weishaupt, Sabine. 2006. “Subjektivierendes Arbeitshandeln in der Altenpflege - die Interaktion mit dem Körper.“ In Arbeit in der Interaktion - Interaktion als Arbeit, edited by Fritz Böhle and Jürgen Glaser, 85-106. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.