Performance studies is a relatively new discipline within communication studies, dedicated to exploring the cultural, social, and political dimensions of performance as a form of communication. Contemporary performance studies is defined by its diversity of subjects and approaches. Some scholars study staged theatrical productions, others the performative rhetoric of protest movements, others the way race and gender are performed through the conventional practices of everyday life. Many performance scholars also view performing as a way of conducting academic research and as a form of pedagogy.

The diversity of approaches to studying performance is part of what makes the field so exciting, but can also generate some confusion regarding the aims and foci of performance studies. This guide provides an introduction to performance scholarship, meant to be useful to prospective graduate students in communication studies. After briefly summarizing the history of the field and surveying different ways of defining performance, the following sections detail three major areas of emphasis in performance studies — the study of performances as an art form, the study of performance as a cultural process, and the study of performance as a mode of critical inquiry — and consider the state of contemporary performance studies scholarship.

Defining Performance Studies

What is a performance? Likely, the first thing that comes to mind in response to this question is an example of an artistic performance, or the performing arts. People perform plays, they perform in film and television, they perform music. At the same time, we also use the term performance to describe things we do in day-to-day life that are not necessarily artistic in nature. People “perform” in social interactions when they are playing a role, or being inauthentic. Athletes perform amazing feats of strength and coordination for millions of fans. People perform rituals related to religion, like daily prayers, and rituals related to patriotism, like The Pledge of Allegiance. Our everyday lives are full of performances.

Because of this complexity, many scholars have noted there are considerable disagreements about what constitutes a performance. The scholarly roots of performance studies are diverse, and encompass the study of elocution, theater, and the oral performance of poetry, all of which are relatively narrowly defined forms of performance. At the same time, as discussed further in the following section, performance emerges as a unique subdiscipline of social scientific research when it begins to explore the similarities between formal artistic performances and those performances, rites, and rituals that make up everyday life.

Scholars of performance studies believe culture and the social world are built on a foundation of performances. This perspective stresses the creative and social nature of reality; through performance, we actively construct and shape our social worlds and political realities. But it would be a mistake to take this to mean that we possess the agency to perform reality however we please. Performances are playful but they are not innocent; they are enacted, but they are not wholly voluntary. Performances are, as Della Pollock (2010) argues, exactly this collision between the scripted and the embodied act of bringing that script to life.

Another way to define performance is in relation to discourse. In a play, actors perform scripts that preexist them, and will continue to exist after them. Scripts, on the other hand, survive only through being performed. Performing is to repeat something, to cite something, but in a material context of enactment, which necessitates one repeats it with a difference (Butler 1990). In this light, critics have also sought to understand the scripts and performances that construct social, political and cultural hierarchies like those surrounding race and gender. However, akin to how cultural studies scholars understand popular culture, performance scholars see performance as a space where power operates, as well as a potential resource for creatively resisting those same power structures.

A Brief History of Performance Studies

Performance studies is both old and new. Scholarly inquiry into performance dates back to Ancient Greece, where Plato and Aristotle debated over the social and political function of oral poetry and theatrical performance. But it was not until the 1960s that performance studies was institutionalized in the Western academy, both as an independent discipline and as a subset of communication studies. In the centuries between, performance was primarily studied by literary critics and, in application, by practitioners of theater and the performing arts.

When performance studies emerges as an independent field of inquiry in the second half of the 20th century, it reflects a shift that has taken place in the study of theater and the performing arts, which involves moving away from treating performance as a type of artistic medium and toward a more encompassing view of performances as ritualistic acts through which cultures and societies negotiate and enforce their norms, values, and politics. This shift has much to do with the contact between cultural anthropology and theatrical research, perhaps most importantly the scholarly dialogue between anthropologist Victor Turner and director and critic Richard Schechner, who helped found the Performance Studies department at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in 1964.

In comparison to the aesthetic and applied criticism of previous generations of performance scholarship, the performance studies of this period was marked by its interest in cultural performances. Cultural performances encompass everything from the highly scripted and stylized (like certain religious and cultural rituals) to everyday performances (for example, how one performs gender through dressing themselves). Performance scholars during this period come to conceptualize performance as a sociocultural process, through which different cultures and societies construct their own realities.

This interaction between theater and anthropology produces a wide variety of approaches to performance scholarship that remain united around the view that society constructs itself through performance. From this anthropological view of performance emerges, as Dwight Conquergood (1989) argues, an approach to performance studies focused on two related, but separate goals: conducting fieldwork on “non-Western and non-elite performances” and the theorization of performance as a frame for interpreting culture and society more broadly.

In other words, performance scholars, in the vein of traditional cultural anthropology, attempt to study the performances of particular societies in order to gain a deeper understanding of those cultures, while also using performance as a theoretical frame through which to analyze culture. Different cultural events or practices are studied as performances in order to gain insight into how they operate and their social, cultural, and political effects.

For example, performance has proven an invaluable part of understanding political rhetoric. Kenneth Burke’s (1945) dramatism is an early example of the use of theater as a heuristic for understanding the persuasive nature of political rhetoric, and its influence was powerfully felt in rhetorical studies; in more contemporary research, approaching political activism through the lens of performance has proven an important way to understand the “body rhetoric” of protests (Foster 2003).

This scholarly turn to use performance as the basis for theorizing communicative, social, and political phenomena across cultures makes performance studies an invaluable contributor to the discipline of communication, and helps explain why, outside of theater and performance departments, performance studies has found an institutional home in communication studies departments. The National Communication Association’s Performance Studies Division and its important publication Text and Performance Quarterly (previously Literature in Performance) were founded in the 1980s, respectively, formalizing what was already a robust interdisciplinary dialogue. Today, performance studies remains a crucial subdiscipline of communication in its own right, as well as an important contributor to rhetoric and critical / cultural studies.

Key Approaches to Studying Performance

The wide-ranging application of the term performance can create some confusion about what types of things count as performances, and raise what is perhaps the more difficult question of what doesn’t count as a performance. But the many types of performances encompassed under the label “performance studies” has been more productive than problematic. The following sections discuss three main approaches to performance studies that complement the different definitions discussed above: the formal critique of performance as a form of Art, the politically-engaged critique of performance as a mode of cultural production, and the study of performance itself as a mode of critical inquiry, or scholarly research.

Performance as a Form of Art: The first major area of performance studies involves the aesthetic and cultural interpretation of theatrical performances and the performing arts. Whether produced by the most distinguished of artists or the most subversive and radical performers, the questions driving this area of performance studies concern performed texts and their artistic value. As detailed in the previous section on the history of performance, performance studies has its roots as a tradition in literary studies and applied theatrical practice. This perspective takes performance, especially drama and performance art, as examples of artistic practices and evaluates their formal aesthetic features, as well as their normative qualities (i.e., is this type of performance good or bad?).

Over the course of its development the discipline shifts to understand the social, political, and cultural value of performative works through an engagement with cultural anthropology and ethnographic fieldwork. As a result, performance research that focuses on the formal aesthetic properties of texts and seeks to evaluate their quality as art has largely been supplanted in scholarship by a focus on the cultural and political dimensions of performance – what performing does, or its sociopolitical significance.

As discussed in the next section, this has meant a move to understand performances through fieldwork, which is dedicated to understanding their meanings to the populations that practice them. This does not mean that the study of particular performances and their formal qualities has stopped. Today, authors continue to question what makes performances artistically unique from other modes of art and communication, analyze the aesthetics of particular performances, and incorporate aesthetics into their own performances. But the significance of these qualities is more frequently attached to political and social themes than discussions of whether a performance is good or bad, or high or low art.

Performance as Cultural Process: The second major area of performance studies focuses on rituals, rites, and everyday practices that define cultures and societies. Beginning with anthropological explorations of non-Western and minor forms of performance, the study of performances in everyday life has expanded to encompass Western, and other major or dominant forms of performance. Performance studies, then, acts as a framework for understanding elements of culture that are performed in nature, but do not qualify as traditional artistic performances.

This shift has opened the door for intercultural fieldwork conducted in non-Western cultures, and marginalized or less visible cultures within Western contexts. It gives root to the “anthropology” of performance, which involves extensive ethnographic fieldwork directed at understanding those processes, from religious and governmental ceremonies to everyday habits, through which cultures make their politics and values material. These tools have also been just as valuable for studying dominant or powerful cultures in the West and beyond.

By directing performance studies to dominant social practices and studying communities who resist dominant cultures, performance studies has become a crucial contributor to critical / cultural research on communication. In this way, the study of performance has allowed for the critique of how power structures manifest and maintain themselves through cultural performances. This has been a particularly crucial observation for critical scholars seeking to understand how performance is involved in the production and maintenance of hierarchies related to race, sex, gender, colonialism, and more.

Performance as a Mode of Critical Inquiry: The third major area of emphasis of performance scholarship is the exploration of performance as a form of critical inquiry. In other words, while the previous discussions of performance position it either as a form of art or as a process that should be evaluated for its cultural and political significance, this third aspect of performance scholarship looks to performance as a way of knowing, and conducting academic research. For example, performance ethnography has become a popular fieldwork method in both communication and the anthropology of performance.

Performance ethnography centers on using performance as a way for ethnographic researchers and members of cultures they study to co-produce knowledge. Through different types of collaborative performance, researchers encourage populations to critically engage with their own cultures and ways of life and produce new forms of knowledge and practices useful to their own needs and political contexts. Augusto Boal (1979), for example, has used forum theater and other collaborative performative practices to help Brazilians living in poverty to cultivate a collective political consciousness and enact political agency within their communities.

Performance Studies Today

Performance studies, as discussed in this guide, is a relatively young discipline despite its ancient roots. In light of this, the main themes or foci of performance studies discussed above continue to define performance literature. Performance scholars today continue to draw on ethnographic methodologies and other forms of fieldwork derived from anthropology to come to rich, detailed understandings of the communicative and sociocultural role that performances play in different cultures.

Performance scholars also remain committed to political and critical research concerns and have been some of the most important and active contributors to understanding how performative modes of communication reproduce hierarchies based on cultural identity while serving as potential sites of resistance. Indeed, performance scholarship is extremely adaptive and continues to transform in response to contemporary exigencies. Alongside cultural politics, for instance, performance scholars have invested in exploring the relationship between forms of performance and new media technologies. The intellectual flexibility, commitment to critical politics, and drive to innovate new modes of conducting academic research found in performance studies makes it one of the most fascinating and provocative contributors to communication research today.

Sources and Additional Resources

Students interested in keeping up with performance studies and learning about the discipline should check out the journals Text and Performance Quarterly, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, and the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, as well as the following sources.

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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

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Studying Performance as a Cultural Process

This article discusses approaches to understanding performance as a cultural process involved in the social construction of reality. It discusses ethnographic research on performance and scholarly engagements with performance as a tool of social and political struggle.