SUBDISCIPLINES: Anthropology of Performance

The Anthropology of Performance

by Susan Lamberth


Associations and Journals




Performance developed as a topical interest in anthropology beginning in the 1970s. Scholars within the disciplines of anthropology, anthropological linguistics and folklore worked together to contribute to a view of performance as way to examine social processes.  This paper is primarily concerned with performance in anthropology, distinguished from performance studies or cultural studies by its commitment to how performance is connected with social organization and the use of ethnography as a method (Bauman 1990).

Milton Singer found useful units of observation in “cultural performances” (Singer 1972). Inclusive of a variety of genres, cultural performances are marked by a defined set of performers and audiences interacting in a finite quantity of time (Singer 1972).  Cultural performances include theatrical events such as plays or concerts, “but they include also prayers, ritual readings and recitations, rites and ceremonies, festivals, and all those things we usually class under religion and ritual rather than with the cultural and artistic" (Singer 1972).  By broadening the idea of performance, Singer avoided the difficulty of situations in which there is no sharp distinction between religion and theatrical art. Later scholars have found the notion of cultural performance as useful tool that “provides a frame that invites critical reflection on communicative processes” (Bauman 1990) whether in cultural performance as a bounded event or in the interactions of daily life.

Victor Turner attributed the new focus on performance during the 1970s to a shift in anthropology from “structure to process and from competence to performance”(Royce 2004; Turner 1987). Turner’s study of Ndembu rites of passage and the multivocality of symbols pointed to a view of ritual as the public performance of a communicative and functional event that attempts to redress schism in a community (Turner 1967).  Seeing rituals as “multisemiotic modes of cultural expression” anthropologists such as Turner theorized performance as a process of transformation for the group as well as the individual (Kapchan 1995).  Emphasizing process contributed a sense of agency that was difficult to find in structural ideas of culture.


Performance also began to be a topic in the early 1970s in linguistic anthropology and folklore (Bauman 1990). In How to do Things with Words J.L. Austin argued that language in use is a social action. Austin developed the notion of performativity, when the act of expressing something constitutes the object, in other words, when the act of speaking actually accomplishes something (Austin 1962 [1955]).  For example given a felicitous situation of actors and location, saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” performs the action of marrying. Performative utterances are not subject to truth claims; they are neither true nor false.  Folklorists built on Austin’s theory to show the complexity of performative utterances.  Today, performativity is examined not just as formal features that accomplish something, but as a relationship between form and communicative function interacting in complex ways in the social construction of reality (Bauman 1990).

Folklorists working on sociolinguistics developed a focus on performance as a response to the privileging of norms, rules and ideal notions of competence in Chomsky’s transformational generative linguistics (Hymes 1971).  Instead of seeing performance as flawed representations of the ideal structure, sociolinguists and folklorists such as Dell Hymes believed performance to be “artful accomplishment” (Bauman, personal communication).  Richard Bauman extended this work to assert that, “performance as a mode of spoken verbal communication consists in the assumption of responsibility to an audience for a display of communicative competence” (Bauman 1977).  Bauman also recognized how a performance can be emergent, creating social structure through the act of performance (Bauman 1977).

Cultural performances are set aside from normal life, and act as “a counterpoint to everyday life” (Kapchan 1995).  In contrast to performances as marked and separate events of heightened awareness, performance of the self in everyday interactions is theorized as a means of constituting identity.  In The Performance of Self in Everyday Life Erving Goffman defined performance broadly, as any public activity that influences other people (Goffman 1959).  Goffman extended performance to the moments of theatricality found in face-to-face interaction as the politics of identity are negotiated through performance of the self

The notion of performance in everyday interaction stimulated scholarship on ethnic and gender identity. Anya Peterson Royce writes on the performance of ethnic identity as well a cultural performance of the arts of dance, mime, and theater.  She sees different levels of performance happening depending on the situation (Royce, personal communication).  Royce proposes the term “style” to explain processes involved in the presentation of ethnic identity (Royce 1982).  The notion of style allows for an accounting of agency and change in the performance of ethnic identity (Royce 1982).

Judith Butler, following Foucault, developed the notion of the performativity of gender in which “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (Butler 1988).  For Butler, the construction of a gendered identity is achieved through stylized repetition of acts (Butler 1988).

The ethnographic encounter between anthropologist and subject has also been examined as a performance.  Both performance and ethnography are “framed activities concerned with giving meaning to experience” (Kapchan 1995). Anthropologists have shown the way members of a culture talk about what they do involves communicating performatively about their culture.  For example, Webb Keane analyzed the discourse about ritual speech among Anakalangese, presenting the interaction between ethnographer and interlocutor as a type of performance (Keane 1995).  


In folklore and linguistics the general shift from structure to process moved the object of study from texts to texts-in-context.  Poetics became more important in the late 1970s and early 1980s as “a new emphasis on performance directed attention away from study of the formal patterning and symbolic content of texts to the emergence of verbal art in the social interaction between performers and audiences” (Bauman 1990).  This shift is exemplified by the change in terms from text to entextualization and from context to contextualization (Bauman 1990). Paying attention to contextualization involves looking at the way participants (which includes performers and audience) examine the performance and how the performance emerges as a result (Bauman 1990). On the other hand, entextualization describes the process that makes text into a coherent unit. Bauman says that entextualization analysis involves “exploring the means available to participants in performance situations to render stretches of discourse discontinuous with their discursive surround, thus making them into coherent, effective, and memorable texts” (Bauman 1990). The textual details retain importance in the analysis of context.  In this view, performance is inseparable from its context. With the processes of entextualization and contextualization, ethnographies of performance have uncovered the dialogue between what is said, danced, sung, or played and the cultural context in which it occurs.

The study of dance performance in anthropology has tended to reflect prevailing theoretical perspectives.  Works by early anthropologists Tylor, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski and Boas all mention dance performance, but none address specific movements, or the context in which dance is performed (Reed, 1998:504).  Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson filmed dance in Bali, but these performances were staged especially for the film and did not pay attention to the larger cultural context.  Dance anthropology emerged as a field of study in the 1970s, as evidenced by the number of articles on the subject appearing in journals such as American Anthropologist and Current Anthropology.  In 1974, the annual conference of Committee (later Congress) on Research in Dance (CORD) focused on dance anthropology (Hanna 1975).  Anthropologists who have developed the field include Judith Lynn Hanna on communicative aspects of dance (Hanna 1979), Adrienne Kaeppler on structural analyses (Kaeppler 1972), Joann Keali’inohomoku on acculturation and widening the conception of what types of dance anthropologists can examine (Keali'inohomoku 1970 [1991]), Anya Peterson Royce on notions of aesthetics as well as reception, finding similarities in cultural conceptions of artistry and virtuosity among different groups (Royce 2004), and Drid Williams by applying linguistic theories to dance (Williams 2004).  Recently, theories of embodiment and phenomenology have emerged as a way to talk about the experience of dancing (Ness 1992; Stoller 1997).

A too narrowly focused performance approach risks losing sight of the performance as a locally particular text situated in history. However, recent studies have successfully merged rich ethnographies of performance with history and local context (Askew 2002:; Browning 1995:; Stoller 1997). Focusing on performance may also neglect how power is deployed, though some scholars have overcome this criticism by focusing on the uses of authority in performance (Briggs 1996).  Additionally, the anthropology of performance has been criticized for aestheticizing culture while ignoring the real suffering of daily life (Bauman, personal communication).  By focusing too narrowly on poetry, neglecting less beautiful ways of using communication, performance approaches risks overlooking important issues relevant to the survival or well-being of the people being studied.  However, some anthropologists have shown how performance is a  means of resistance or a way to critique postcolonial structures of power and domination (Bruner 1994).

Although there is no journal or association of anthropologists of performance, performance scholars interact through associations focused on particular media such as dance or theater, as well as generally through the American Anthropological Association and its journals. The anthropology of performance continues to contribute to debates about the constructions of identity, nationalism, aesthetics, and public space. 


Associations and Journals

Congress on Research in Dance (Dance Research Journal)

Society for Ethnomusicology (Ethnomusicology)

Performance Studies International

Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics (Latin America)

The Drama Review

Asian Theater Journal




Askew, Kelly

              2002     Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Austin, J.L.

              1962 [1955]     How To Do Things With Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bauman, Richard

              1977     Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.

Bauman, Richard and Charles Briggs

              1990     Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life. Annual Review of Anthropology 19.

Briggs, Charles

              1996     The Politics of Discursive Authority in Research on the "Invention of Tradition". Cultural Anthropology 11(4).

Browning, Barbara

              1995     Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bruner, Edward M. and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

              1994     Maasai on the Lawn: Tourist Realism in East Africa. Cultural Anthropology 9(4).

Butler, Judith

              1988     Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal 40(4).

Goffman, Erving

              1959     The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City: Doubleday

Hanna, Judith Lynn

              1975     The Anthropology of Dance: Reflections on the CORD Conference. Current Anthropology 16(3).

              1979     To Dance is Human: A Theory of Nonverbal Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hymes, Dell

              1971     The Contribution of Folklore to Socioloinguistic Research. Journal of American Folklore 84(331).

Kaeppler, Adrienne L.

              1972     Method and Theory in Analyzing Dance Structure with an Analysis of Tongan Dance. Ethnomusicology 16(2).

Kapchan, Deborah A.

              1995     Performance. Journal of American Folklore 108(430).

Keali'inohomoku, Joann

              1970 [1991]     An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance. In What is Dance? R.C.a.M. Cohen, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keane, Webb

              1995     The Spoken House: Text, Act, and Object in Eastern Indonesia. American Ethnologist 22(1).

Ness, Sally Ann

              1992     Body, Movement and Culture: Kinesthetic and Visual Symbolism in a Philippine Community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Royce, Anya Peterson

              1982     Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

              2004     Anthropology of the Performing Arts:Artistry, Virtuosity, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Singer, Milton

              1972     When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Modern Civilization. New York, Washington, London: Praeger Publishers.

Stoller, Paul

              1997     Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Turner, Victor

              1967     The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

              1987     The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.

Williams, Drid

              2004     Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.


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