Sociology and Anthropology

Dara Culhane: Performance Studies for Teaching and Practicing Ethnography

June 09, 2014
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SFU Anthropologist Dara Culhane sees exciting potential in integrating performance with ethnography to unlock imaginative possibilities both pedagogically and methodologically.

Having come to university in her early thirties, Culhane’s previous experiences living in and working with First Nations communities taught her to understand “research as emerging from relationships.” This cultivated a commitment to developing methodologies that “considers research participants as creative beings who are authorizing their own work in a way that is comprehensible and interesting for their communities.”  She sees research as collaborative, a process of co-creation.  As such, ethnographic research methodologies are very important to Culhane and help produce research questions that are “based in peoples everyday lives, life stories and biographies, issues of exclusion and inclusion, and hopes for justice.”

In order to meet the challenge of researching, representing, or otherwise working with people’s stories, one experimental approach Culhane has turned to is performance:  “Performance Studies is an interdisciplinary approach that merges, as its main threads, the fields of anthropology, theatre studies, history, language and literature, gender and sexuality studies, and indigenous studies.  It is a field that brings together diverse scholars, artists, and community leaders and is currently growing and developing around the world.” Performance Studies looks beyond conventional theatre spaces to include activities like sports, creative practices, political activism, courtrooms and aspects of everyday life.  It seeks to study how people are both “scripted by social structures, performing different forms of self, but also ways we can subvert and challenge those scripts.”

Culhane's one-woman play, "Hear Me Looking At You" based on her archival and ethnographic research in Ireland

For Culhane, performance has the potential to re-imagine approaches to ethnography because it directs close attention to the importance of bodies and imagination in individual lives, social relationships, and the making of communities. “We live in our bodies, and imagination plays a significant role understanding ethnographic research. It helps reveal how we imagine ourselves, our relationships to each other, our histories, and political possibilities for building futures,” she says.  Exploring imagination can reveal “alternatives to what may appear to be a fixed set of possible ways to live.”

Methodologically speaking, Culhane sees the potential in studying performance as a way to understand connections between “bodies, affect, imagination, and political imaginaries.”  Such an approach has drawn Culhane toward “sensory ethnography.” Sensory ethnography asks questions concerned with “how to understand experiences of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, feeling, sensing danger and fear, or belonging or exclusion.” For Culhane, “sensory ethnography asks how to conduct interviews considered as multi-sensory, communicative experiences? How can research participants have more control over spaces where research is conducted, and how it is conducted? For example, participant-led walking tours, cooking together and sharing meals, or going together to the community garden.”  It is a way to “try to pay attention to multi-sensory experiences and to do work in ways where the research process may be led by participants.”   

SA 402 Mini-Conference (video, below)

In the classroom Culhane began to “mix imagination, creativity, and performance as research and research based performance into the teaching of ethnographic methodologies” as a way to address the complicated issues facing emergent ethnographers.  Culhane finds that, pedagogically speaking, “Since ethnography asks students to really focus on both process and product, and thus on the intended audience,” incorporating performance into ethnographic studies “forces thinking about research with a clear intentionality.”  As Culhane notes, performing research in the classroom “helps students ask – why are we doing this?  And how might we best communicate and present this work?  How do we actually put into practice commitment to addressing diverse audiences within and beyond the university?”

At the end of Culhane’s undergraduate class SA 402: The Practice of Anthropology, students put on a mini-conference (see video, below) where they are encouraged to consider unconventional options for presenting the research projects they carry out during the course.  Students have experimented mounting small exhibits, performing dramatic monologues or small playlets, or with interactive performances with the audience. Culhane observed “because Anthropology really is a discipline that has had to account for itself, and anthropologists are acutely aware of the problems of representation, attempting to perform representation in a different way opens new challenges and new possibilities.”  She noticed that “when someone tries to speak other people’s words they are confronted in a deeply embodied way with the same political questions as when they are writing and deciding how to describe and cite research participants’ stories  – it exposes the problems of representation.  Pedagogically working that through performance is very helpful.  It also cultivates a general humility.  It works well where we need it.”

Culhane, alongside colleagues in SFU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and the Health and Society and Theatre Departments at York University, are seeking to expand the discussion of experimental ethnography in terms of methodology and pedagogy.  They have helped launch the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography as a place to discuss and explore experimental ethnographic methodologies and critical pedagogies.  Culhane sees the Centre as a place “where people who are interested in creating a space for experimentation can apply these ideas.”  The group is growing quickly and sponsored sessions at the Canadian Anthropology Society meetings at York University in April 2014, and will be holding a roundtable session at the annual American Anthropology Association meetings in Washington in December 2014.

At SFU, Culhane is excited about the imminent arrival of SFU’s Performance Studies Certificate, a cross-disciplinary certification program including the Departments of English, Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and Sociology and Anthropology, as well as the School for Contemporary Arts. The program  will be housed in the Department of English and officially launches in Spring 2015.

The Practice of Anthropology (SA 402) Mini-Conference 2012

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