The Invisible Theatre of Ethnography: Performative Principles of Fieldwork
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Anthropological Quarterly 79.1 (2006) 75-104

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The Invisible Theatre of Ethnography:

Performative Principles of Fieldwork

Open School of Ethnography and Anthropology

The Invisible Theatre of Ethnography: Performative Principles of Fieldwork

I have been arguing for some time now that ethnography is going to change or is changing by the same means that it already has within it—not by obsessing over its political efficacy with the text-cultures it invents—but by opening ethnography to its own performance and performativity.
—Abdel Hernández, September 17, 1997.1
I set out to make the case that fieldwork is, or should be regarded as, art. I wound up instead making the case that there is an art to fieldwork and art in it, but that does not make Art of it, at least in an everyday sense… We need to introduce or reintroduce a more dramatic contrast between doing fieldwork and gathering data… The label fieldwork ought to be reserved for research circumstances when depth is a reasonable trade-off for breadth… Fieldwork is ideally suited to the study of culture, but one does not have to be committed to the concept of culture to do fieldwork. There are other [End Page 75] terms and ways to conceptualize and study the social contexts in which humans interact.
—Harry Wolcott, The Art of Fieldwork, pp. 241, 247, 248; emphases added.

This article is a conceptual exploration of what Hernández calls the "performativity" and Wolcott the "doing" of fieldwork. By these two terms I refer to the very actualization, conduct, realization, and corporeal doing of the activities and practices that comprise and constitute ethnographic fieldwork. It has become an increasingly common view among anthropologists that ethnography must move away from the debates of ethnographic representation and theorization of culture. From this position, some anthropologists have sought a return to the more scientific business of ethnography, while others have turned decisively toward the politics of cultural production. Another, however short-lived, response was the emergence of experimental ethnography in anthropology, which remained focused on ethnographic representation (versus turning to fieldwork per se) and, specifically, writing/literary representation (versus other media beyond the literary and audio-visual text). Unlike that movement in anthropology, symbolic and interpretive interactionisms in sociology have pushed for new ways of conceiving ethnography as both fieldwork and representation by engaging the performative dimensions of both doing fieldwork and the communication of ethnographic reporting. This article allies itself with this third set of scholarship. The goal is to analyze the performativity or doing of fieldwork in order to identify basic ontological principles. These in turn may be useful to rethink the very conception and design of ethnographic research.

Wolcott distinguishes between two types ethnography. "Doing fieldwork" are activities and practices that are based in immersion while "gathering data" "in the field" are research activities that rely upon rapid, extensive, and comprehensive investigations of the surface of phenomena on relatively large (or larger) scale with methods such as surveys, questionnaires, sampling, that can be applied without the intensive immersion and in situ dwelling of doing fieldwork. In this article, we retain and rename the analytical contrast as a distinction between "being in fieldwork" (Wolcott's doing fieldwork) and "doing fieldwork" (his "gathering data") in order to enable an ontological interpretation of the performative nature (or performativity) of fieldwork, whether this research is based in immersion or "surface" methods. To state the obvious, in both of Wolcott's types of research, the researcher conducts, does or "performs" the research; thus, the distinction between "being in fieldwork" and "doing fieldwork" becomes an analytical distinction that identifies two facets of research [End Page 76] and allows for an analysis of the ontological performativity of fieldwork. The goal of this article, which is, however, primarily concerned with the "doing of fieldwork" in Wolcott's sense, is to open up a space and a perspective by which to rethink fieldwork through a new understandings of its basic ontological—that is, performative—principles. Having recourse to Augusto Boal´s invisible theatre and...