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Indiana University Bloomington

Performance and Ethnography

What do we mean by performance?

Our approach to the object of study we call performance has several key attributes, and is flexible enough to allow students and faculty to pursue a range of research interests and orientations. Central tenets of our approach to performance in practice include the following:

* As a starting point, we recognize that the performance forms of a community or society tend to be among the most marked, public, memorable, repeatable, and therefore circulable forms of discourse in its communicative economy.

* The social organization of communication its participant structures and roles, and how these shape the engagement of the people who participate in a given form — is central to our studies of performance in practice.

* We understand publics as constituted by the circulation of discourse, which may involve co-present or dispersed participants, and immediate as well as mediated communication. We study the continuities and discontinuities between all parties to this practice.

* We treat media as any technology of communication — from the human body/larynx through writing, print, sound recording, electronic, televisual, hypermedia — and we see them all as susceptible to ethnographic study, and all as sites of performance.

* Our approach to the study of performance equally guides our engagement with various related issues, including gender, sexuality, race, law, politics, social movements,  and cultural identities, given that we recognize such socially meaningful categories as born out of social distinctions people create for performative purposes.

In sum, the study of performance provides a point of entry for research into social life as it is constituted, critiqued, and transformed through communicative practices. It highlights the emergent, creative, and transformative nature of the language use — and indeed of use of all the semiotic systems through which we communicate — in sociocultural context. Performance offers a compelling vantage point on the mutually constitutive relationship between seemingly microlevel practices and wider processes, ideologies, and political formations.

What do we mean by the ethnographic study of performance?

"Ethnography" refers both to a distinctive methodological research practice, and to the text that is subsequently created from the results of that research. The practice of ethnographic research usually entails a deep immersion into a specific social world, using an anthropological method called participant observation. As a text (most commonly in the form of writing or film), ethnography is the interpretive account of where you've been, one that can speak both to those who will probably never see the world you describe, and to those who live in and create it every day.

There isn't a rigid set of all-purpose instructions for participant observation, since different cultural settings require different approaches to research. In fact, while the primary frame of reference for ethnographic research is direct engagement, in "the field," ethnographic perspectives are productively employed as well in the study of historical cases. But in all its creative variety, doing ethnography — and then producing an ethnographic text —  still entails a mode of attention that attempts to apprehend the cultural world through the perspectives of those who live, or have lived, it.  It involves understanding symbolic, aesthetic, affective and political realms in light of social fields of meaning. 

The ethnographic approach focuses on concrete, specific instances of expression to address larger, theoretical questions about culture, power, and what it means to be human.  In fact, one way that ethnography may be distinguished from other genres, such as journalism, that gather information through direct engagement is that ethnography is also a theoretical endeavor. As scholars, we are engaged in building social theory through our analyses of social life and communicative practice. Ethnography is a key vehicle through which social theory can be developed.  In some cases, social theorists have been ethnographers themselves. In other cases, ethnographic research has served to hone, complicate, or challenge social theory.  Ethnography is also a site for generating new dialogues across theoretical paradigms while at the same time illuminating otherwise disregarded dimensions of social life.   

As both a research method and a genre of writing, ethnography was developed by cultural anthropologists. Even as it is increasingly utilized by other disciplines, ethnography retains much of the vision at the center of cultural anthropology: that meaning-making is always deeply social; and that the vast diversity of cultural life in the world is co-present with a universal equality in the human capacity for thought, imagination and expression. But while traditional anthropology emerged under the assumption that ethnographers would study bounded, small-scale societies disappearing in the face of modernity, changing conditions in the world give rise to new expectations of the ethnographic endeavor. In our work in the Department of Communication and Culture, ethnography becomes a means of tracking the shifts in structures that we see emerging in the changing global arena. Along with geographically contained communities, we see public culture as constituted by the circulation of discourse in many live and mediated forms. Entering the social worlds of performance production and reception, we study expressive technologies that range from global mass-media to the intimacy of the live human voice, in contexts ranging from bounded geographic sites to the dispersed communities whose borders are shaped by public imagination.