Gallagher 2011 Essay

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Social & Cultural Geography
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: Sound, space and power in a primary school
Michael Gallagher



Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh, 23 Buccleuch
Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9LN, UK
Version of record first published: 02 Feb 2011.

To cite this article: Michael Gallagher (2011): Sound, space and power in a primary school, Social & Cultural Geography,
12:01, 47-61
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Social & Cultural Geography, Vol. 12, No. 1, February 2011

Downloaded by [Cardiff University] at 05:30 17 September 2012

Sound, space and power in a primary school
Michael Gallagher
Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh, 23 Buccleuch Place,
Edinburgh EH8 9LN, UK,
This paper presents some reflections on the role of sound in the exercise of power in school spaces, showing that the exercise of power through discipline and surveillance, whilst commonly thought of as taking place primarily through vision, may also rely heavily on sound and hearing. I use examples from ethnographic fieldwork in a primary school to illustrate the spatiality of sonic power. In so doing, I contribute both to the understanding of schools as spaces of institutional power, and to recent literature on geographies of sound and music.
Key words: sound, space, power, school, surveillance.

A portrait
I live close to a primary school. When children are in the school’s playground, the noise that they make is clearly audible if my windows are open. On a typical weekday, at around half past eight in the morning, the high-pitched voices of a few children can be heard. Gradually, more voices join the fray, building steadily into a raucous cacophany, a swirling mass of laughter, shouts, chirps and screams reverberating around the playground—a peculiar variation on the dawn chorus. At nine o’clock precisely, a bell rings loudly, often followed by the strident tones of a female adult voice. Over the next two minutes or so, the noise drops to silence, leaving only the twittering of the local birds in its wake. Calm descends, and the playground becomes peaceful once more. Yet similar phenomena occur again mid-morning and at lunch time.

I find these phenomena fascinating. First, there is the sound that the children make.
Sometimes it seems joyful and carefree; listening closely one can hear yelps of delight and triumphant cries of ‘tig!’ At other times, the sound seems disturbingly aggressive, the riotous buzzing of an agitated swarm. Its intensity can also be troubling. At break and lunch times, it is as if an entire morning’s running, jumping, shouting, laughing and screaming have been pent up behind the barriers of