Intuitively, one might expect performance studies to describe an academic discipline dedicated to understanding drama and other examples of artistic performance. This assumption would not be entirely incorrect – research in performance studies is indebted to 20th century innovations in theater and performance arts, and many performance scholars remain committed to studying artistic performances, including drama, dance, and music. At the same time, the study of performance as a form of art makes up only one aspect of performance scholarship. The majority of performance scholarship, including scholarship that is interested primarily in artistic forms of performance, is distinguished by its understanding of performance as a cultural process.

To study performance as a cultural process involves viewing artistic performance as an interpretive resource for understanding society and culture. Drawing from social constructivist perspectives developed in anthropology and critical political thought, artistic performances are viewed as a unique communicative medium that materializes social and political norms. Perhaps more importantly, everyday behaviors like dressing yourself or saying the Pledge of Allegiance are studied through the lens of performance. From this perspective, the boundary between artistic performance and other levels of society are thrown into question.

An interdisciplinary dialogue between anthropology, communication, and critical research on race, gender and cultural difference animates the view of performance as a cultural process. This article aims to provide an introduction to the study of performance as a cultural process for prospective graduate students. It discusses the study of performance as a cultural process by examining three specific areas where this conception of performance most directly influences scholarship: ethnographic performance research, critical performance research on identity, and research on performance as a means of political resistance.

A Brief History of Performance as a Cultural Process

As discussed in the Introductory Guide to Performance Studies, the academic collaboration between theatre and anthropology forms the foundation of what we recognize as performance today. This dialogue is meant to overcome limitations in both fields, where the former had been an overly aesthetic, textually centered analysis of the performing arts, while the latter had a troubling propensity to project Western knowledge, norms and values onto the non-Western and politically disenfranchised populations they most frequently studied. The meeting between these two disciplines aims to move past these limitations by embracing, first, a view of performance as a cultural process, and, second, by prioritizing collaborative, ethnographic field research.

Importantly, this dialogue between theater and anthropology worked, not simply to produce changes in these independent fields, but also to produce the unique interdisciplinary field of performance studies. The emergence of performance studies as an independent discipline also meant the rise of performance ethnography as a dominant paradigm of studying performance. But anthropology is not the only field to have a concerted influence on performance scholarship. From its inception, ethnographic performance research enters into dialogue with critical feminist theory and other strains of critical / cultural thought. As discussed further in the following sections, these intellectual influences continue to inform critical research on the performance of identity and the use of performance as a mode of political resistance.

Spotlight on Scholarship – Featured Scholars in the Study of Performance as a Cultural Process

Discover how contemporary performance scholars study performance as a cultural process, from ethnographic work on the musical performances of communities in Cuba to the examination of art as Black political resistance in Panama and research on spoken word communities in the United States.
Renée Alexander Craft, Ph.D. - The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dr. Renée Alexander Craft is Associate Professor of Communication and Curriculum in Global Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Alexander Craft’s critical ethnographic research explores Black political resistance, with a particular focus on the Afro-Latin “Congo” people of Portobello, Panama. This project is represented in her first book When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama (2015), as well as an ongoing online exhibition of interviews, performances, and other archival materials entitled Digital Portobello: Art + Scholarship + Cultural Preservation. This latter project has received the UNC Digital Innovations Lab / Institute for the Arts and Humanity Fellowship as well as the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship. Dr. Alexander Craft also received the prestigious American Society for Theater Research Errol Hill Award for outstanding African American performance research in 2017.

Amber L. Johnson, Ph.D. - Saint Louis University

Dr. Amber Johnson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Saint Louis University, whose scholarship focuses on intersectional politics, especially pertaining to race and gender, and their significance for both performance and media studies. Dr. Johnson is a prolific scholar whose essays have appeared in Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, Qualitative Inquiry, and elsewhere. Dr. Johnson was recognized by the Lilla Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies in 2016, when she also won the top paper in the Ethnography Division. Dr. Johnson has earned a multitude of academic honors before and since, including the Dr. Norm White Award for Engaged Scholarship and Service from Saint Lois University.

Javon Johnson, Ph.D. - University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Javon Johnson is Assistant Professor and Director of African American Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he also teaches in the Interdisciplinary, Gender and Ethnic Studies Department. An acclaimed spoken word poet in his own right, Dr. Johnson examines the social and political relationships engendered in the slam and spoken word poetry communities through his scholarship. This is the subject of his first book Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities (2017). Dr. Johnson is also a co-editor of The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape and has been published in some of the field’s must prestigious journals, including Text and Performance Quarterly and Liminalities.

Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock, Ph.D. - The University of North Carolina Wilmington

Dr. Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock is Professor of Communication Studies and Director of Performance Studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Dr. Scott-Pollock’s research investigates identity, difference and disability through performance ethnography alongside other qualitative research methodologies. In particular, her research focuses on physical disability as well as eating disorders and aging. Dr. Scott-Pollock also directs a number of theatrical groups associated with the university and beyond, including Just Us: Performance Troupe for Social Justice. Her book Embodied Performance as Applied Research, Art and Pedagogy won the National Communication Association’s Best Ethnographic Book award in 2018. She is also the most recent recipient of NCA’s prestigious Lilla Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies.

Alexandra T. Vasquez, Ph.D. - New York University

Dr. Alexandra T. Vasquez is an Associate Professor specializing in performance studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Her scholarship explores musical performances in Cuba, bringing together critical scholarship on Latina/o/x identity together with feminist theory. Dr. Vasquez received the Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship in 2011 and her book, Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music (2013), received the American Studies Association Lora Romero Book Prize in 2014. Her essays have also been widely published, appearing in publication like Social Text and the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

The Ethnography of Performance

Performance ethnography describes scholarship that attempts to understand the cultural significance of performances through rigorous empirical research. Ethnographers attempt to immerse themselves in the culture whose performances they study and build a contextual understanding of those performances’ social, cultural, and political significance. Ethnographers of performance typically complete extensive fieldwork, conduct in-depth interviews, and also often actively participate in the cultural performances they study. Performance ethnographers present their research both in traditional, written work that makes use of thick description and contextually-informed interpretation to analyze cultural performances as well through re-staging or otherwise archiving those performances.

In his important essay “Performing as A Moral Act,” Dwight Conquergood (1985) diagnoses the ethical risks associated with performance ethnography. The author divides criticisms of ethnographic research into four categories: the custodian’s rip-off, wherein the researcher appropriates the performances of the culture being studied for their own academic or artistic ends; the skeptic’s cop out, in which the ethnographer pretends to be capable of a distanced, scientific objectivity inaccessible to the cultural “other” they study; the curator’s exhibitionism, which represents that culture as exotic and makes use of reductive generalizations; and the enthusiast’s infatuation, in which the researcher tends to minimize cultural differences and too easily assumes similarity and understanding with the population they study.

Opposed to these models, Conquergood locates dialogic performance; a mode of research invested in the co-production of knowledge, which, at the same time, does not gloss over real cultural differences or the gap between the standpoint of the researcher and the population they study. Performance ethnography is invested in the idea that researchers ought to study performances alongside members of the cultures that practice them. Ethnographers attempt to foreground local knowledge and the agency of local populations, positioning local cultures as both the producers and rightful beneficiaries of the knowledge generated through performance research.

Not all contemporary performance research is ethnographic, and there is also great variety in the type of ethnographic research conducted. However, performance scholarship is typically highly critical of research that attempts to speak for others, and is committed to the idea that performance is a means through which cultures can both produce knowledge and assert their political agency. Oral history performance, for example, is a genre of performance scholarship that shares performance ethnography’s emphasis on intercultural dialogue and the importance of marginalized knowledge.

Oral history scholars like Della Pollock (2005) work to preserve alternative and parallel cultural traditions and historical knowledge that would otherwise be covered over by dominant narratives of the past. Through re-performing historical narratives, performance studies scholars bring the perspectives of other cultures into new cultural and temporal contexts, encouraging audiences to enter into dialogue with these narratives and grapple with the lessons they hold for the present.

Critical Perspectives on Performance and Identity

The anthropological roots of performance studies do not only reflect themselves in the ethnographic methodologies of much performance research. They also introduce the idea, fundamental to performance studies, that performance is a creative cultural process. Defining performance as a cultural process means stressing the socially constructed nature of reality. It also means stressing the open ended or liminal nature of social reality; insofar as reality is created through performances, it is always in a state of flux or transition, and must be continually recreated.

Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance, presented most famously in her 1990 text Gender Trouble , had a profound impact in connecting the idea of performance as social construction with the critical / cultural scholarship on identity developing elsewhere in the academy in the wake of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s (see the article Critical / Cultural Studies, Identity and Representation for more information). Butler argues that neither sex nor gender has any essential or necessary qualities; their meaning is instead constructed through the repeated performances of “scripts” that, through repetition and coercion, become concretized into norms that have the appearance of being natural or inevitable.

While some performance scholars have been critical of Butler’s account of performativity as overly textual in nature, focusing as it does on “scripts,” the embodied aspect of gender performance is absolutely critical for Butler. As she argues, while we perform scripts, scripts themselves lack sociocultural or political consequences until they are made material through embodied action. Our bodies, then, become the places where power structures surrounding gender are reified, or done again. They are also, as her famous discussion of drag as performance entails, critical sites of experimentation and potential resistance.

For these reasons, the performed and embodied nature of identity is an absolutely critical aspect of performance studies research on sex, gender, and race today. Research on these subjects focuses, like Butler’s work, on the ways in which everyday performances discipline the body into abiding by certain norms and, in doing so, sustain those same normative power structures.

Performance and Political Resistance

The view of performance as a cultural process not only makes performance a means through which power works to establish and uphold social and political norms. It is also makes performance an area in which these cultural conventions can be contested and rewritten. Indeed, ethnography of performance and critical performance studies are alike insofar as they both consider performances to be invaluable resources through which marginalized and non-Western cultures develop alternative forms of knowledge and assert their political agency against those who oppress them.

For example, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (1979) documents the author’s work using different models of performance to help cultivate political agency among marginalized and socioeconomically disenfranchised groups in Brazil. Boal’s signature concept is the “spect-actor”: a riff on the word spectator, that reflects Boal’s attempts to break down the division of roles between the performer and the audience. In forum theater, for example, short performances dramatizing social issues are paused at their moment of climax, and the audience is invited to suggest means of resolving the conflict. Another example is performances that enact the breaking of oppression, wherein audience members are invited to stage a moment where they have been socially persecuted or marginalized, and then re-stage so that they fight back against their oppression.

Performative projects such as these, if done correctly, do not impose the will of the researcher on their subjects. Rather, researchers work with groups and communities in a dialogic manner, where the goal is for the community to produce their own knowledge and recover their own agency through performance. The political motivations of this approach to performance depend on the idea that reality is socially constructed through how we perform. In such a context, learning how to assert agency in cultural performances, and how to perform otherwise, are invaluable resources of political expression, agency, and resistance.

Studying Performance as a Cultural Process Today

The approaches to studying performance as a cultural process detailed here remain at the forefront of contemporary performance scholarship. Performance scholars maintain an abiding interest in performance as a process through which the sociopolitical character of culture is established, as well a keen awareness of the risks that come with attempting to give voice to other cultures. Many of today’s performance ethnographers are committed to representing the knowledge of marginalized cultures by aiding members of these cultures, to the extent possible, in speaking for themselves. Following Conquergood, performance ethnographers aim to create an open dialogue between the researcher and the people they study, as well as between the performer and the audience.

Contemporary scholars also retain the perspective that the performative nature of culture makes both artistic and everyday performances into a space of struggle, where power attempts to maintain the status quo and marginalized people mount resistance. As a result, many contemporary performance scholars continue to study the ways in which social performances maintain and enforce certain cultural and political norms. Alternatively, scholars like Boal, Pollock, and those discussed in the article Studying Performance as a Critical Method, invest in the ways in which performance offers a unique resource for the preservation of marginalized knowledge and traditions, as well as the cultivation of political agency and resistance against oppression.

Sources and Additional Resources

Performance studies is an exciting and rapidly developing field, and ethnographic performance scholarship and research inspired by the idea of performance as a cultural process are increasingly important to critical scholarship in communication studies more broadly. To learn more, check out the resources below.


Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy is a writer, musician, and academic living in Chicago with his 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 also worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Additional Topics on Performance Studies

Introductory Guide to Performance Studies

This introductory guide maps the history of performance studies and introduces three main ways scholars have approached performance: as a product of culture, as a creative process that shapes culture, and as a critical method for doing research, teaching, and working for political change.