Fieldwork / Ethnography and Performance Theory

by Mary Magoulick

Folklore and ethnography shifted perspective in the 1960's from collecting and categorizing (see history of folklore link) to synthesizing and understanding peoples and their creations in their own terms. Such re-imaginings gave birth to performance theory. Dell Hymes and Dennis Tedlock, both working with Native American texts, sought to represent those texts more appropriately, from a better, insider’s perspective, to reflect the way the stories were appreciated and understood by members of the cultures from which they came. Often these days, folklorists let literature and narratives speak for the people and the cultures we study, though we shape interpretation through analysis of the texts, usually according to various theories. This is the scientific method upon which the academy is based. The insights and methods of previous generations of scholars inevitably change based on new or fine-tuned theories that better fit contemporary methods, goals, or insights. Performance theory remains extremely useful and valid for contemporary folklorists, especially those working with field-collected narratives.

One insight of performance theory focuses on rendering texts so that the artfulness of a given performative event may be manifested on the page (aesthetic sensibilities are to be discovered according to local understanding of language, speech patterns, genre, etc.). Called ethnopoetics, this method also allows for recuperation of previously collected material which may have been represented as artless or awkward (see Hymes’, "Some North Coast Poems" in "In vain I tried to tell you" 1981). Tedlock, Hymes, Bauman, Sherzer, Gossen, and others demonstrate effectively that we may representing certain, especially artful oral texts on the page as poetry according to rhythms, repetition, etc., by transcribing with scrupulous attention to details such as pauses, loudness, and patterns of speech. This approach to poetics is a kind of anthropology of art (which might be another definition of folklore). Performance theory also recognizes that not all performances are equal. "Full performance" involves a level of competence that produces artistry, though measures of competency are to be discovered in each fieldwork situation and with awareness of local measures of artistry.

At the same time that performance theory calls for greater awareness of and attention to formal elements of textual representation (structural concerns), it also calls for greater focus on context. Performance theory situates stories to a particular event and credits a narrator who assumes responsibility for the performance. Each performance is keyed, and relies on a performer’s assumption of responsibility for the emergent event. Folklore is not to be conceived any longer as disembodied "text" but rather a rich convergence of performer, situation, setting, audience, and society. Richard Bauman notes the typical view of oral literature until recently and the changes in orientation urged by performance theory: "oral literature has been conceived of as stuff – collectively shaped, traditional stuff that could wander around the map, fill up collections and archives, reflect culture, and so on" (1986, 2), giving it the bounded appearance that, as with culture, is problematic. Instead Bauman calls for us to:

recognize that the symbolic forms we call folklore have their primary existence in the action of people and their roots in social and cultural life. The texts we are accustomed to viewing as the raw materials of oral literature are merely the thin and partial record of deeply situated human behavior. My concern has been to go beyond a conception of oral literature as disembodied superorganic stuff and to view it contextually and ethnographically, in order to discover the individual, social, and cultural factors that give it shape and meaning in the conduct of social life. (1986, 2)

Without context, it is argued, texts are disembodied from the reality of their performance event, and are thus incomplete and less meaningful. A text, like a textile (etymologically related) is woven together from the situation of a given performance, the audience, details of an individual performer, and knowledge and understanding of the social group and culture of the performer and the audience.

Performance Theory and Native American Folklore

Karl Kroeber concurs that this method of attending to context is especially necessary in the study of Native American narratives. He suggests that such works typically were dismissed as primitive and unimportant by the literary establishment. They were used, in single interpretations, as reflective of culture. Once they are rendered and recognized as art (which he urges), then "diversity of interpretation is possible because the narrative truly is a work of art" (1981, 8). Once we apply the principles of literary theory, which "can never legitimately claim a final or complete understanding," we can allow for variety of interpretation of Native literature as well, thus foregrounding its richness (1981, 8-9). Such a perspective depends upon attention to context: "In constructing hypothetical relations between their texture, text, and context, we can only improve and extend our appreciation of the art of the writers and enrich our understanding of the cultures from which their works emerge" (1981, 9). Attending to form and many systems of interrelationship between the text and multiple contexts, helps draw out its artfulness, subtleties, and meaning.

Elaine Jahner shows in her discussion of interpreting Native American folklore how necessary contextual information is to understanding narratives. She analyzes a wolf narrative and reveals its meaning and implications based upon other Lakota narratives and Lakota worldview. Based on her demonstration, she observes: "Cut off from their performance context, they [texts of narratives collected in previous generations and published] are like the dry bones of skeletons. They show us only outlines" (1983, 16). While she does not discard those collected texts altogether, like other scholars, she calls for more efforts based on the insights of performance theory, especially in attending to context.

Applying Performance Theory

Thus far, most folklorists working with performance theory attend primarily to structural, textual elements of the theory (rendering oral performances more artfully on the page), though all argue for attention to context. Obviously, the amount of contextual information necessary for a full performance-informed discussion of a text is overwhelming. Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time in Ballymenone – at 850 pages – is one example. When writing of his purpose with this work, Glassie echoes Abu-Lughod’s sentiments about writing against culture:

I am concerned less with the structure of society than with the quality of social life, less with the economic system than with the nature of work, less with genres of literature than with the meaning in texts. I ask not how people fit into the plots of others but how they form their own lives, not what people do once in a while but what they do all the time.

My task was not to write another ethnography, but to write accurately and usefully about the workaday reality of other people. I wanted to know how people who share my world make it despite boredom and terror. (1982, 15)

Focusing more on discourse and practice of real lives (context), and less on setting "boundaries" (whether historical or contemporary) that delineate culture is likewise my goal. Writing the real lives of people is an overwhelming task. But one I undertook here based on the good will and humor of consultants who shared their lives and stories with me.

Fieldwork and attentiveness to form are keys to performance theory. Fieldwork is an integral part of folklore which has often offered insight into literature. Albert Lord’s Singer of Tales, for instance, based on fieldwork among then contemporary epic bards (guslars) in Yugoslavia (done with Milman Parry at Harvard), demonstrated that oral formulaic compositions of the guslars are quite similar to those of Homer. By demonstrating how the guslars compose their epics as they perform them, using particular patterns, occasional stock phrases, and general plot outlines, and then by comparing such formulaic compositions to the written record of Homer’s epics, Lord reveals that Homer was using the same method, and was thus an oral bard.

Convergence and Interrelationships

Dell Hymes describes folklore as:

Concern with the aesthetic and expressive aspects of culture; concern with traditions and traditional life of one’s own society; enjoyment of, and caring for, what one studies; often, craftsman-like participation in the tradition studied; concern for accuracy and objectivity, insight and explanation, that manages by and large not to contort what one studies with procrustean methodology, or to conceal it behind a mask of theoretics. (1975, 345)

Such goals and impulses gave rise to performance theory. Performances theorist advocates aim to avoid the dominating influences of theory, while employing it judiciously to understand discourse and practices, and to draw out "underlying uniformity of pattern" (Hymes 1975, 351). Michael Jackson suggests we should be aware of the "mutual dependency" of science and literature, letting each inform the other without elevating either to emerge as "truth" (1989).

Richard Bauman suggests we need an approach based upon a similar emergent and fluid notion of "truth," and also an awareness of the connection between the "stuff" we collect and the community and people from which it comes:

If we are to understand what folklore is, we must go beyond a conception of it as disembodied superorganic stuff and view it contextually, in terms of the individual, social, and cultural factors that give it shape, meaning, existence. This reorientation in turn requires us to broaden the scope of our fieldwork: a contextual perspective on folklore makes the enterprise much more ramified and complex than the simple butterfly-collecting approach – the collecting of anachronistic antiquities – that often passes for fieldwork in folklore. (1983, 362)

We folklorists accept the notion that the folk (people, culture) and the lore (willed, individual, creative, artistic expression) are intimately connected and inform each other. When possible, we should let consultants’ own words, collected during fieldwork, aid in understanding their culture and analyzing their performances (narratives). In Bauman’s image, this means that, "What remains essential is a basic conception of folklore as situated in a web of interrelationships, a frame of reference which may allow for the pursuit of specific connections and patterns, depending upon the investigator’s interests and resources, while keeping in view the broader range of relevant factors as well" (1983, 362). Through fieldwork, textual analysis, and understanding key concepts and theories of literature, folklore, anthropology, and cultural studies, scholars find their understanding and abilities to ascribe meaning, interpret, and teach artistic materials enhanced.

Michael Jackson offers an intriguing image of such interwoven processes:

With a single endless loop of string, the Polynesians could illustrate stories, depict mythological scenes and persons, or suggest the forms of houses, weapons, [etc.] . . . .Can our discourse be likened to these string figures, a game we play with words, the thread of an argument whose connection with reality is always oblique and tenuous, which crosses to and fro, interlacing description with interpretation, instruction with entertainment, but always ambiguously placed between practical and antinomian ends? If so, truth is not binding. It is in the interstices as much as it is in the structure, in fiction as much as in fact. (1989, 187)

Performance theory is also based upon this recognition of the "interlacing" of "description with interpretation." The similarity of this metaphor to Bauman’s "web of interrelationships" indicates the consensus among scholars of the need for a fluid approach that recognizes such interconnections. Text and context inform each other. The interlacing or web encompasses at once performer and analyst, difficult though such a pattern is to create.

Performance theory helps us to continue to discuss and appreciate what it means to be human and to give expression to our lives.


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