Theater of Everyday Life: Ethnographic Writing in Public Spaces

Course Number
MLA 5020 640
Course Code
Course Key
Primary Program
Course Description
You stare self-consciously at the doors of a crowded elevator, dress for your first day of classes, or tell the story of a grueling exam. Although these actions and interactions may seem to be natural elements in our everyday lives, according to sociologist Erving Goffman, they’re actually pieces of theatre, the staging and parts of which we have learned through years of training. In unpacking the role of performance in our daily lives, we may begin to see how life is like theatre—a site where meaning is created and enacted through dialogue, choreography, and dramatic action. This seminar combines aspects of ethnography with issues pertinent to public culture to ask: How does performance function in everyday life? When do we cast ourselves in starring roles or take our place in the audience? What aspects of life do we explain through social dramas, ritual, or festival? In answering these questions, we draw upon scholarship in folklore, anthropology, and theatre as we consider the theatricality of our own lives; a natural history museum’s staging of the ritual drama of cultural others; and cultural performances of students’ own choosing. The course is structured around three essay/multi-modal projects, so that by the end of the semester you will have practiced exploring this question through the lens of prevalent styles of ethnographic expression.   One theme of our course will be that the learning process never stops; one doesn’t “arrive” at being a good writer/cultural analyst, etc., but rather continually becomes one. Another theme is the assumption that as on the stage, much of the meaning and symbolic significance of a drama is conveyed bodily rather than merely textually. To study the body, ethnographers have adopted the use of their own physical selves as data-gathering instruments, describing the experience of cultural performances first-hand. As ethnographer Greg Downey writes, “taking seriously how different ways of standing, moving, and acting animate us, inform our perceptions, and enliven our sense of ourselves requires an emphatically embodied form of anthropology.” We, too, will probe: to what degree are we able to know the experiences of others by casting ourselves in supporting roles within their social dramas? Can, as folklorist Deirdre Sklar asks, we learn more about performance by doing than by the more detached research tools of observing and talking?  This seminar asks you to be thoughtful and self-reflective about such modes of engagement: to question and evaluate your own “performances.”