SSW 03: Reflexive & Performance Ethnography

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW)



Reflexive Ethnography

Davies introduces at the beginning of her book:

“In doing research of any kind, there is an implicit assumption that we are investigating something 'outside' ourselves, that the knowledge we seek cannot be gained solely or simply through introspection..

On the other hand, we cannot research something with which we have no contact, from which we are completely isolated.

All researchers are to some degree connected to, or part of, the object of their research.

And depending upon the extent and nature of these connections,

questions arise as to whether the results of research are artefacts of the researcher's presence and inevitable influence on the research process.”

Reflexivity is important for all research, to paraphrase Davies,

but especially in social research, where the connection between research and research setting – the social world – is close, and the research objects (people) - as conscious and self-aware beings – make influences by the researcher and the research process on its outcome both more likely and less predictable.

(Davies, 2007: 3)

In ethnography, relations between researcher and researched are “more intimate, long-term & multi-stranded, and the complexities introduced by the self-consciousness of the objects of research have greater scope”

Reflexivity, according to Davies, means “a turning back on oneself, a process of self-reference.

In social science, it refers to ..
“[T]he ways in which the products of research are affected by the personnel and process of research.

These effects are to be found in all phases of the research process from the initial selection of topic to final reporting of results.”

(Ibid.: 4)

“Not only the personal history of ethnographers but also the disciplinary and broader sociocultural circumstances under which they work have a profound effect on which topics and peoples are selected for study.

Furthermore, the relationships between ethnographer and informants in the field, which form the bases of subsequent theorising and conclusions, are expressed through social interaction in which the ethnographer participates;

thus ethnographers help to construct the observations that become their data..”

Awareness of when ethnographer steps in and out of field..

“Individual ethnographers in the field – and out of it - must seek to develop forms of research that fully acknowledge and utilise subjective experience and reflection on it as an intrinsic part of research.

Furthermore, given the contribution of the ethnographer's sociocultural context to the research, these contexts too must be considered. They become a part of the research, a turning back in the form of cultural critique that has moral and political implications as well.”

“On the other hand, this turning back, or self-examination, both individual and collective,

clearly can lead to a form of self-absorption that is also part of the definition of reflexivity

in which boundaries between subject and object disappear, the one becomes the other,

a process that effectively denies the possibility of social research.

This outcome is closely related to various post-modernist and post-structuralist critiques which, in their most extreme forms, are essentially descructive of the enterprise of social research.

Nevertheless ethnographers must seek to utilise creatively the insights of these postmodernist perspectives

insights that encourage
incorporation of different standpoints,
exposure of the intellectual tyranny of meta-narratives
and recognition of the authority that inheres in the authorial voice

- while at the same time rejecting the extreme pessimism of hteir epistemological critiques.”

(Ibid.: 5-6)


Reflexivity and knowledge

Davies (p 7) brings together a series of references to how reflexivity can be interpretated in relation to knowledge

Babcock (1980) is referred to as offering dichotomies to describe different varieties:





of which some can be placed along a spectrum.

Example of

relatively private individualist, maintaining partially reflexive activity of keeping a journal, also termed as 'benign introspection' by Woolgar (1988b), but explicitly self-aware that one is reflecting.


public, collective activity of traditional rituals which display a form of 'social reflexivity'.
but might be implicitly understood (not understood that this is what is happening).


“Total reflexivity requires full and uncompromising self-reference” (Davies, 2007: 7) but this may destructive to process of doing research as researchers are reflecting upon reflection etc.


“considerations of reflexivity are compelled to moved beyond the notion of the researcher's effect on the data and begin to acknowledge the more active role of the researcher in the actual production of those data.

Thus the 'ethnographic enterprise is not a matter of what one person does in a situation but how two sides of an encounter arrive at a delicate workable definition of their meeting' (Crick 1982a).

Steier (1991b) goes further in viewing the research process as one in which researcher and reciprocators (not respondents) are engaged in co-constructing a world”


Performance Ethnography Introduction..

Norman Denzin introduces in 'Performance Ethnography' that since at least the 90's,

“interpretive ethnographers have been staging reflexive ethnographic performances, using their fieldnote and autoethnographic observations to shape performance narratives, and anthropology and sociology of performance.”

He writes that: “We are in the seventh moment of qualitative inquiry, a postexperimental phase, performing culture as we write it”..

(Denzin, 2003: preface ix-x)

“understanding that the dividing line between performativity (doing) and performance (done) has disappeared”

(Ibid: 4)

[What are the previous six moments?]

Denzin's book Performance Ethnography

is a “performance text about the performance turn in the human disciplines”.

“about rethinking performance (auto)ethnography, about the formation of a critical performative cultural politics, about what happens when everything .. is already performative, when the dividing line between performativity and performance disappears”

To following thesis structures his text:

“We inhabit a performance-based, dramatical culture. The dividing line between performer and audience blurs, and culture itself becomes a dramatic performance. Performance ethnography enters a gendered culture in which nearly invisible boundaries seperate everyday theatrical performances from formal theatre, dance, music, MTV video, and film.. Performance texts are situated in complex systems of discourse, where traditional, everyday and avantgarde meanings of theatre, film, video, ethnography, cinema, performance, text, and audience all circulate and inform one another.. the meanings of lived experience are inscribed and made visible in these performances”.

“Performance ethnography simultaneously creates and enacts moral texts that move from the personal or to the political, from the local to the historical and the cultural. As Conquergood (1985) observes, these dialogic works create spaces for give-and-take, doing more than turning the other into the object of a voyeuristic, fetishistic, custodial, or paternalistic gaze.”

(Denzin, 2003: preface x)

“A performative discourse simultaneously writes and criticises performances. In showing how people enact cultural meanings in their daily lifes, such as a discourse focuses on how these meanings and performances shape experiences of injustice, prejudice, and stereotyping.”

This way of doing social science “attempts to do more than just show how biography, history, gender, race, ethnicity, family and history interact and shape one another in concrete situations. The desire is to show how the histories and performances that persons live are shaped by forces that exists being their backs.

A criticial sociological imagination [Mills, 1959] responds in three ways to the successive crises of democracy and capitalism that shape daily life. It criticises those formations by showing how they repressively enter into and shape the stories and performances persons share with one another.

At the same time, it shows how people bring dignity and meaning to their lives through these same performances. In so doing, it also offers kernals of utopian hope, suggestions for how things might be different, and better.”

(Ibid.: preface xi)

In his book, Denzin poses how to construct, perform and critically analyze performance texts, but priviledges coperformance (audience-performaner) texts and narratives:

“A coperformance story brings the audience back into the text, creating a field of shared emotional experience. The phenomenon being described is created through acts of representation and presentation.

A resistance model of textual performance and interpretation is foregrounded. A good performance text must be more than cartharitic – it must be political, moving people to action, reflection, or both.”

(Ibid.: preface xi)

He believes that “performance-based human disciplines can contribute to radical social change, to economic justice, to a cultural politics that extends critical race theory and “the principles of a radical democracy to all aspects of society” (Giroux 2000a:x, 25), and to change that “envisions a democracy founded in a social justice that is 'not yet'” (Weems 2002:3)”

Inspired by Giroux,
He believes that interpretive ethnographers should be part of this movement.

(Ibid.: 3)

Hence, this way of ethnography “imagines and explores the mulitple ways in which we can understand performance, inclung as imitation, or mimesis; as construction, or poiesis; and as motion or movement, or kineisis (Conquergood 1998:31).”

“The ethnographer moves from a view of performance as imitation, or dramatical staging,

to an emphasis on performance as liminality, and construction,

then to a view of performance as struggle,

as intervention, as breaking and remaking, as kineisis, as a sociopolitical act.”

(Ibid.: 4)

“I [Denzin] fold my project into Du Bois's [need for addressing 'colour line' in 20th C.] and hook's [black political performance aesthetic], by asking how a radical performance social science can confront and transcend the problems surrounding the colour line in the 21st century. Such a project will write and perform culture in new ways. It will connect reflexive autoethnography with critical pedagogy and critical race theory.

It will necessarily treat politcal acts as pedagogical and performative, as acts that open news spaces for social citizenship and democratic dialogue, as acts that create critical race consciousness.. [that] imagines a radically free democratic society, a society where ideals of the feminist, queer, environmental, green, civil rights, and labour movements are realised.

Alternative models to how media & white culture shape African American experience:

Our image, our braids, our music, our mistakes,
our asses, our rhythms are played on TV
like a long 78 album in commercial after commercial
The Colonel in plantation-dress raps and moonwalks
selling a black woman's stolen fried chicken, black kids
snap their fingers, think that's so cool, bug their mamas
for extra-crispy
This is a never-ending story, that won't be televised..

(Mary Weem's, 2002: 4 poem 'This Evolution Will Not Be Televised”)

Indigenous Voices and Anticolonialist Discourse

Late 90s, emergnece of African American, Chicano, Native American and Maori stand-point theories..

“These theories question the epistempologies [ways of knowing and understanding] of Western science that are used to validate knowledge about indigenous peoples.

Maori scholar Russell Bishop (1998) presents a participatory and participant perspective..

that values an embodied and moral commitment on the part of the researcher to the members of the community with whom he or she is working.

This kind of research is characterized by the absence of the researcher's need to be in control.

Such a commitment reflects the researcher's desire to be connected to and to be part of moral community.

The researcher's goal is compassionate and understanding.”

(Ibid.: 6)

“The researcher is forced to develop new story lines that reflect this understanding.

The researcher wants nothing more than
to participate in a collaborative, altruistic relationship,
where nothing “is desired for the self” (Bishop 1998: 207).

Participant-driven criteria are used to evaluate such research.

Bishop (1998) describes the cultural values and practices that circulate in Maori culture, for example, including metaphors that stress self-determination, the sacredness of relationships, embodied understanding, and the priority of the community.

These participant-driven criteria function as resources for researchers who want to resist positivist and neoconservative desires to “establish and maintain control of the criteria for evaluating Maori experience” (Bishop, 1998: 212).

Native American indigenous scholars emphasise a spoken epistemology [discourse?] over a longer period that that of writing.. “developed over thousands of years of sustained living on this Land”

Grande (2000) describes a 'red pedagogy' that “privileges personal-identity performance narratives—that s, stories and poetry that emphasise self-determination and indigenous theory.” and as Denzin refer to Grande, has four characteristics:

a) politically, it maintains 'a quest for sovereignty, and the dismantling of global capitalism';
b) epistemologically, it privileges indigenous knowledge;
c) it views Earth as its 'spiritual centre';
d) socioculturally, it is grounded in 'tribal and traditional ways of life (Grande, 2000: 355)”

“The performance of these rituals validates traditional ways of life. The performance embodies the ritual. It is the ritual. In this sense, the performance becomes a form of public pedagogy. It uses the aesthetic to foreground cultural meanings and to teach these meanings to performers and audience members alike.”

(Denzin, 2003: 7)


Performance, pedagogy & politics

Denzine writes

“The current historical moment requires morally informed performance and arts-based disciplines that will help people recover meaning in the face of senseless, brutal violence, violence that produces voiceless screams of terror and insanity.”

“We need an oppositional performative social science, performance disciplines that will enable us to create oppositional utopian spaces, discourses, and experiences within our public institutions. In these spaces and places, in neighbourhoods, in experimental community theatres, in independent coffee shops and bookstore, in local and national parts, on playing fields, in wilderness areas, in experiences with nature, critical democratic culture is nurtured.”

(Denzin, 2003: 7-8)

“Performance-sensitive ways of knowing' contribute to an epistemological and political pluralism that challenges existing ways of knowing and representing the world.

Such formations are more inclusionary and better suited than existing ways for thinking about postcolonial or 'subaltern' cultural practices (Conquergood, 1998: 26).

Performance approaches to knowing insist on immediacy and involvement. They consist of partial, plural, incomplete, and contingent understandings, not analytic distance or detachment”

(Denzin, 2003: 8)


Reiterating Definitions

A performance is an interpretive event involving actors, scripts, stories, stages and interactions

Cultural performances are encapsulated contingent events that are embedded in the flow of everyday life.

Performances, in plural: events that are usefully understood as performances.. These are pedagogical event that involve the politics of culture.

Performance, in singular, used as asn organising concept for example phenomenon that may or may not be a performance in conventional sense, for example includng exhibitions, tourist environments and the aesthetics of everyday life.

The act of performing intervenes between performance and the story told.

Performance texts can be dramatic texts (poems or plays), natural texts (transcriptions of conversations), ethnodramas or dramatic staged or improvised readings.

Performance is an act of intervention, a method of resistance, a form of criticism, a way of revealing agency.

Performance becomes pedagogic when it used the aesthetic (the performative) to foreground the intersection of politics, institutional sites, and emboddied experience.

Performance is a form of agency which brings culture and the person into play.

Performances are embedded in language.. Certain words do or accomplish things, and what they do, performatively, refers back to meanings embedded in language and culture.

Performance and performativity intersect in a speaking subject, a subject with a gendered and racialised body.

There are no original performances or identities. Every performance is an imitation, a form of mimesis.

Every performance is an original and an imitation.

Performing is doing.

The text, the performance is done.

(Denzin, 2003: 9-10)


The move to performance ethnography

“Conquergood (1991: 190).. argues

we should treat performances as a complementary form of research publication, an alternative method or way of interpreting and presenting the results of an ethnographer's work.

Performances deconstruct, or at least challenge, the scholarly article as the prefered form of presentation (and representation).

A performance authorises itself not through citation of scholarly texts, but through its ability to evoke and invoke shared emotional experience and understanding between performer and audience.”

(Denzin, 2003: 13)


Denzin writes that the move to performance has been accompanied by a shift in ethnographic writing..

“Richardson (2000b) observes that the narrative genres connected to ethnographic writing have “been blurred, enlarged, altered to include poetry [and] drama..

She uses the term 'creative analytical practices' to describe these many reflexive perofrmance narrative forms, which include

not only performance autoethnography
but also short stories,
fiction, creative nonfiction,
photographic essays, personal essays,
personal narratives of the self,
writing-stories, self-stories,
fragmented or layered texts,
critical auto-biography, memoir, personal histories,
cultural criticism, co-constructed performance narratives,
and performance writing, which blurs the boundaries seperating text, representation, and criticism.

In each of these formas the writer-as-performer is self-consciously present, morally and politically self-aware.

The writer uses his or her own experiences in a culture 'reflexively to bend back on self and look more deeply at self-other interactions'”

(Denzin, 2003: 14-15)



READ ALOUD: Chapter 11: Redskins and Chiefs

(Denzin, 2003: 184-212)


References shared in this session:

Babcock, B. A. (1980). 'Reflexivity: definitions and discriminations', Semiotica 30(1/2): 1-14.

Bishop, Russell. (1998). 'Freeing ourselves from neo-colonial domination in research: A Maori approach to creating knowledge'. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 11:199-219.

Conquergood, Dwight. (1988). 'Beyond the text: Toward a performative cultural politics'. In Sheron Dailey (ed.) The future of performance studies: Visions and revisions, Washington DC: National Communication Association.

Conquergood, Dwight. (1991). Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a critical cultural politics. Communication Monographs 58: 179-94.

Crick, M. (1982a). 'Anthropological field research, meaning creation and knowledge construction', in D. Parkin (ed.) Semantic Anthropology, London: Academic Press

Davies, Charolette. A. (2007). Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others, London: Routledge Press.

Denzin, Norman K. (2003). Performance Ethnography: critical pedagogy and the politics of culture. London: Sage Publications.

du Bois, W. E. B. (1901/1978). 'The problem of the twentieth centure is the problem of the color line'. In W. E. B. du Bois, On sociology and the black community, edited by Dan S. Green and Edward Driver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (originally published, 1901)

Giroux, Henry A. (2000a). Impure acts: The partial politics of cultural studies. New York: Routledge.

Grande, Sandy. (2000). 'American Indian identity and intellectualism: The quest for a new red pedagogy'.
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 13:143-60.

hooks, bell. (1990). Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End.

Richardson, Laurel. (2000b). 'Writing: A method of inquiry' In Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd ed., Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (eds.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Steier, F. (1991b). 'Reflexivity and methodology: an ecological constructionism', in F. Steier (ed.) Research and reflexivity. London: Sage Publications.

Mills, C. Wright. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weems, Sarah. (2002). I speak from the wound that is my mouth. New York: Peter Lang.

Woolgar, S. (1998b). 'Reflexivity is the ethnographer of the text', in S. Woolgar (ed.) Knowledge and reflexivity, London: Sage Publications.

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