Anthropology professor discusses advent of loudspeakers in Nigeria

Hayden Clark

City streets in Nigeria are filled with a cacophony of announcements and messages broadcast via loudspeaker, according to Brian Larkin, associate professor and department chair of anthropology at Barnard College, who spoke Monday about the effect of these loudspeakers on Nigerian society.

Larkin has spent a number of years living in Nigeria and writing books on social infrastructure and has become a respected researcher in the field.

“[Larkin is] an expert on infrastructure in multiple senses of the word,” Jennifer Carlson, anthropology doctoral candidate, said. “So, not just like bridges or railroads, but also technological linkages, cables and computers.” 

Larkin said it is rare for speakers not to be used for prayer and conveying messages in Nigerian society.

“In Nigeria, a meeting is not considered a real meeting unless you have a good PA system,” Larkin said.

According to Carlson, the frequent use of loudspeakers throughout Nigerian city streets has decreased Nigerians’ effectiveness in holding individual attention.

“[Loudspeakers are] an infrastructural component of everyday life,” Carlson said.

Carlson relates this to the proliferation of traffic lights representing an integral part of the everyday
American commute.

“We may not like or care about stop lights that order the world around us, yet we’re still participating with them,” Carlson said.

The constant noise from loudspeakers has become an ordinary element of the Nigerian people’s surrounding environment.  

“[Sound] is one of these things that’s literally hanging in the air as these people go about their lives, and [it acts] upon their bodies and [forms] how they see the world and how they live in the world … It becomes part of the climate,”
Carlson said.

Anthropology graduate student Saikat Maitra said different religious sects in Nigeria often use speakers to gain popularity over
one another.

“What has happened is that, in these big cities, there is a way in which every group — like, let’s say the Muslims — [competes],” Maitra said. “What they are trying to do is to hold attention of their own and convert others … and send their message. It’s a kind of performance to
hold attention.”

Larkin said the use of loudspeakers has also played a role in the religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.

“Religious sound has been at the heart of this conflict, while at the same time being a quotidian, ephemeral part of everyday life,” Larkin said.