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Collaborative Research Fora: Mobility

Understanding Difference through Expressive Culture in an Increasingly Mobile World

Mask spirit Gue Pelou
Mask spirit Gue Pelou, originally from the village of Toufinga, Cote d'Ivoire, leading a parade during Lotus Festival, Bloomington, Indiana, 2006. Photo provided by Daniel Reed.

Across the world, transnational human mobility has increased dramatically, becoming one of the defining features of early 21st century life.  Economic migrants, political refugees and others move in increasing numbers and frequency across national borders. The contours of transnational travel generally follow disparities in economic power, with the result that the tide of human movement generally pulls away from the Global South and toward the Global North. Demographic shifts in the state of Indiana serve as a case-in-point. The resultant increased intermingling of peoples of differing religious, ethnic, racial, social, class, cultural, national and other identities renders the understanding of difference a critical skill in Indiana and the rest of the United States.

A specially framed site of heightened reflexivity, expressive cultural performance serves as a site for the negotiation of the kinds of competing discourses that are common in contexts of rapidly changing demography.  As such, the ethnographic study of expressive culture is an effective means to analyze and understand the ways people construct notions of difference in their lives.  Ethnographic methods, designed to elicit concrete, specific understandings of human behavior, often shed light on nuances that problematize simple monolithic or binary representations of people and their differences.  Therefore, we seek to create opportunities to enhance and further develop IU’s current strength in the study of expressive culture and mobility.

Mask spirit Gue Pelou
Mask spirit Gue Pelou, originally from the village of Toufinga, Cote d'Ivoire, relaxing before a performance at a wedding in St. Bernice, Indiana, 2008. Photo provided by Daniel Reed.

Many faculty in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology are specialists in the study of the ways people employ expressive cultural forms and practices in constructions of individual and community identities, while some, including Mellonee Burnim, Ruth Stone, Daniel Reed, Fernando Orejuela, Alisha Jones, John McDowell and Rebecca Dirksen have attended specifically to the study of expressive culture of mobile populations of African descendant peoples in the Americas. African Studies, African American and African Diaspora Studies, and the Center for the Study of Global Change are administrative units already in existence where interdisciplinary dialogue on these topics is occurring.  Extending beyond research on African descendants to include scholars studying the expressive practices of other mobile populations would significantly expand the reach and range of programming that could occur.

We envision various possible programmatic initiatives that could advance interdisciplinary work related to the study of expressive culture and mobility at IU.  Small-scale initiatives might include a monthly study group/brown bag, funded by CAHI or another comparable internal source.   More ambitious programming could be developed through CAHI’s Global Midwest grant competition, and/or the Grand Challenges or Emerging Areas of Research initiatives under the auspices of the Provost.