Doing Style: Genre and the Ethnography of Performance


I’m preparing for my candidacy exams, which in my department means I’m reading four separate lists of about 25 books each. Each one is overseen by a different committee member, and are organized thematically by large bodies of literature I think are foundational to my work. Or, as my committee chair put it, ‘if you say, I study _____, what are the things people will expect you to have read?’ Since my research is interdisciplinary (and possibly convoluted), a few of my lists actually encompass more than one main field or area.

I just turned in an annotated version of one of my lists, titled “Doing Style: Genre and the Ethnography of Performance.” This list was designed around three major components, and influenced by folklore studies and my focus on the Popular: genre theory, ethnography of performance, and performance studies, and then somewhere along the way subcultures snuck in there. I’ve divided them for you below roughly by those four themes. My comments are brief and geared towards how these texts interface with my larger project, but I hope they are of interest to you!


Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999. Gives overview of genre theory from Aristotle and Horace to the present moment. Offers critiques and assertions, specifically about film. Genres are historical, processual, and subject to redefinition. They are defined primarily by discourse and use, by production, criticism, reception, and circulation. Focuses on experiential concerns as lacking from genre studies.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “The Problem of Speech Genres.” Speech Genres, and Other Late Essays. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986. 60-102. In defining genre and what to attend to, particularly focuses on the audience, context, and the relation of the individual to the whole. His taxonomy includes style, and primary/simple genres in addition to their secondary/complex genres. Most interested in the level of the utterance, that is a given performance, and its dialogic relationship to what shaped its occurance.

Ben-Amos, Dan, Ed. Folklore Genres. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. [selections] Ben-Amos and Roger Abrahams’s contributions were very useful towards comparative genre analysis. Introduces idea of the ‘structure of context’ and a taxonomy of genre types defined on the axes of presentational/participatory, stylization, and resolution. Particularly useful for me was Abrahams’s focus not on exclusive categories to label genres, but rather on relative distinctions.

Briggs, Charles and Richard Bauman. “Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2(1992): 131-172. Really useful for theorizing categorization as well as providing a model to look at categories at work in the world. Asserts that genre is always instantiated, never a platonic or static idea. Everything has a pripr model or is in conversation with it, whether trying to replicate or escape (and so intertextuality). Judgments on cultural products are a way to accrue social power.

Bordieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984. Asserts that taste is informed by literacy, which is usually cultivated through exposure, almost always dictated by class. Distinctions made by people index their social classifications, and may be read as identifying characteristics. In turn certain forms or items are defined through the people who like them, such that engagement with those could be subversive or aspirational.

Derrida, Jaques. “The Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry. 7.1(1980): 55-81. Very abstract, not focused on examples or any specific mode of production but on how categories and categorization works broadly. Introduces a typology in descending order of mode, followed by genre, followed by type. Perhaps most usefully, asserts that all categorization is done with an eye towards policing, but in defining in opposition, the Other always gets included.

Frow, John. Genre. New York: Routledge, 2006. Fantastically useful. Catalogues theories of genre as developed in literary theory, film studies, and music. Has the taxonomy mode, genre, sub-genre. Attends to structural and situational/social aspects of genre and genre classification, stating that classification is a way to make meaning, both for producers and for consumers. Also emphasizes discursive nature of genre.

Harris, Trudier. “Genre.” The Journal of American Folklore 108.430 (1995): 509-527 Very useful. Includes the history of the use of genre in folklore studies and a summary of what most contemporary folklorists are concerned with in their recent investigations. These include issues of intertexuality, contexts of performance and circulation, who perpetuates categories, and who is policing their boundaries. Mostly focused on oral and literary forms, but applicable.

Holt, Fabian. Genre in Popular Music. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2007. Really useful and insightful. Focuses most directly on what genre does in the production, dissemination, and consumption of popular music. Conventions of labeling, making, and experiencing music are cultural and aggregative, and are just as much at play in those practices as any formal attributes of the given (piece of music). Accounts for communities of consumption.

Moore, Allan F. “Categorical Conventions in Music: Style and Genre.” Music and Letters 82.3 (2001): 432-442. Very useful. Summarizes literature on style and genre, with particular attention to differences between musicologists (who prefer ‘style’) and popular music writers, who align with media and cultural studies scholars and prefer ‘genre’. Contextualizes larger debate and makes an argument for acomplex model of categorization that uses both terms distinctly. Introduces the axis of autonomy versus the social, and reception vs production-based models.

Performance Studies

Bauman, Richard, Ed. Verbal Art as Performance. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 1977. As a space-clearing/field-defining gesture, Bauman marks the performance turn in folklore as a way to broaden the scope of inquiry. Performance analysis should attend to” context, keying, aesthetics, rules, innovation, and its role in social structure. In second part Gossen’s “Chamula Genres” asserts the necessity of engaging with native taxonomies to understand fully. 

O’Shea, Janet. At Home in the World: Bharatanatyam on the Global Stage. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP 2007. A critical historiography with close-choreographic analysis. Successfully writes about a form about which a great deal is written by focusing on paradigms like tradition vs. innovation and authorship vs. cultural legacy to interrogate received knowledge and naturalized ideals of nation, gender, and the classical. Theorizes dancing as method to locally engage the changing world.

Rivera-Servera, Ramón. Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2012. Amazing integration of thick description in a broad historical and political contextualization. Useful for ideas about global intersectional identity, which is emergent and lived in local contexts, about improvisation theorized broadly as a social skill to survive disciplinary power and challenge it. Discusses the individual positioned in cultural trends and social contingencies.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Contextualizes Performance Studies as a discipline and highlights major concerns, particularly within circulation in the Americas. Useful for theorizing the development and dissemination of material and its relation to power through her ideas on the archive and the repertoire, and for her in depth discussion of theories of mixing such as mestizaje, hybridity, and transculturation.

Thomas, Helen. The Body, Dance, and Cultural Theory. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Amazing book. Begins with overview of the body as it’s been discussed (or not) in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology from the Greeks to the present day, moving towards the current view of a culturally determined body. Useful review of subculture literature; case study on rave culture critiques literature’s lack of attention to dance. Looks at training and media components.

Turner, Victor “The Anthropology of Performance.” The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986. 72-98. Introduces the model of social drama as the unit from which genres of cultural performance derive. Asserts that the tensions displayed and resolved in the stages of social drama influence the form and function of cultural genres. While this model seems removed from the context of many popular genres, it’s an interesting idea to think with once I have ethnographic data.

Schechner, Richard. “Collective Reflexivity: Restoration of Behavior”Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1985. 39-81. Brings together different specific examples of performance and rehearsal to make a larger point about the temporality and reality of performance, always part of a chain of other performances and mediated contexts. Pays attention to how relations of power are consolidated and reiterated even in context of ‘play’—this is a way that the frame of ritual continues to be useful.

(Performance) Ethnography


Buckland, Theresa. Dance in the Field: Issues in Dance Ethnography. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999. An anthology of experiences and best practices for fieldwork. Overarching themes included the need to be aware of power and divisions, between researcher and subjects, within the field of study, and in the literature you’re entering; knowing the etiquette for participation and that you will certainly become involved, and the importance of fieldnotes for success of the final writing.

Csordas, Thomas. “Somatic Modes of Attention.” Cultural Anthropology 8.2 (1993): 135-156Provides a methodology attending to bodily experience. Asserts that somatic modes of attention are different from other knowledges, and are important. Makes a case for the researcher to embody the practice first, then ask informants about their experiences. Also useful discussion of kinesthetic pleasure interfacing with outside influences, or in other words, taste and preference.

Conquergood, Dwight. Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxis. Ed. E. Patrick Johnson. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2013. Anthology of his articles and speeches, ranging from methodological and theoretical positionings to in depth ethnography. Really important for how to position yourself to your field and your subjects, with ‘deep hanging out’ and ‘dialogical performance.’ His writing has a personal and passionate voice that’s still very clear and attentive to larger circulations of discourse and power.

Kozinets, Robert. Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research OnlineLos Angeles: SAGE, 2009. Very dry, but interesting. A thorough and self-aware accounting of the contexts and tools newly available for research, and the potential difficulties with them. Particularly useful in its careful discussion of etiquette for engaging in or with an already existing online community, including when to engage, how knowledgeable you need to be, and how to properly acknowledge help.

Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2012. Extremely useful. While the title focuses on ethnography, the book is a guide to everything you need to know about working in the humanities, from summarizing Western philosophic history and the major theorizations used today to step-by-step guide for planning, carrying out, and writing up your research. Asks you to consider how your project is one of social justice.

Ortner, Sherry. “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984):126-66. Offers a comprehensive summary of the field of Anthropology from 1960 to 1984, charting influences of different schools of thought, their concerns, and their impact on the larger field. Not specifically useful for my project except to contextualize it within theories and methods of cultural anthropology, but would be great to assign to an intro to anthro/ethno/folklore course.

Sklar, Deidre. “On Dance Ethnography.” Dance Research Journal 23.1 (1990): 6-10. AND “Reprise: On Dance Ethnography: Toward Cross-Cultural Conversation.” Dance Research Journal 32.1 (2000): 70-77. In the original, and in her response to herself, Sklar positions Dance Ethnography in terms of the experiential and kinaesthetic, asserting the necessity of physical engagement with the dance forms or movement practice being studied. She uses a particular example of an instance in her fieldwork where until she was physically involved, she did not understand the event.

Whitehead, Neil, and Michael Wesch. Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subject, and the End of Anthropology. Boulder: UP Colorado, 2012. Interesting but not foundational. Theorizes and gives examples of the variously (un)human subjects being studied right now, including a wide array of representations of self on/through the Internet, as well as the (dis)abled, poor, and disenfranchised, and how including these pushes the boundaries of ethnography and anthropology.


Browning, Barbara. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print. Takes a geographic focus to investigate Brazilian movement practices of Capoeira, Samba, and Candomblé through auto-ethnography and participant observation. Main themes include nationalism, how training in each form is undertaken, and the identities that form through practice. At times selective in representation of each form, but interesting to see together.

Bock, Sheila and Katherine Borland. “Exotic Identities: Dance, Difference, and Self-fashioning.” Journal of Folklore Research 48.1(2011): 1-36. Successfully combines the literature from folklore and from dance studies, an ethnographic approach and a larger view. Really wonderful model for a both/and approach to experience and representation. How do we account for lived experience as well as the impact that experience has on the lives of others? Includes movement description from practitioners and the authors.

García, CindySalsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles. Durham: Duke UP, 2013. A close reading of the LA salsa scene as it interfaces with the geographic, racial, and cultural politics of Southern California and its heterogeneous population. Useful for challenging notions of salsa a ‘coherent’ genre and detailing the variety of values, contexts, and practices at play. Strong authorial voice, small group of informants but wonderful movement description.

Novack, Cynthia. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison, WI: U Wisconsin P, 1980. An amazing model for a monograph on a single form, but strengths are extrapolatable, including: The combination of contextualization with close movement description, the focus on how structure, function, and meaning work together and are perceived from within and without the community of practice. Also chronicles directionality of influence in a global(ized) form.

Roberts, John W. From Hucklebuck to Hip-Hop: Social Dance in the African-American Community in Philadelphia. Diane, 1995. Print. Oral history based account of social dance practices in Philadelphia 1950s-1990s. Very interesting but is told almost entirely in quotations, with no commentary or analysis from an author, so it lacks movement description and has unclear temporality and causality. Does reveal interesting trends in venue, etiquette, dance forms preferred, and gender and race relations.

Sub/Club Cultures

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, Routledge, 1979. Predominately focuses on outward expressions of identification with white male subcultures as they are in conversation with black subcultures and in opposition to the culture of the previous generation. Discussion is overarching and doesn’t focus deeply on any individual expression or form. Prompts question for me about women and subcultures: not there, or just not in the record?

Pini, Maria. Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity: The Move from Home to House. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Tries to account for the lived experiences of women who find raving ‘liberating’ in Britain in the 1990s, and to rectify a lacuna in clubbing literature, which tends to focus on men. Critique of male-centered youth culture studies is useful and thought-provoking for how I’ll carry out my own work. Incomplete given no movement description but talking about a dance practice, overall kind of shallow.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover, NH: UP of New Englland, 1996. Continues the practice Pini critiques and focuses on straight white male participants in club culture. However, offers important contributions in the discussion of liveness and authenticity as they circulated historically and currently. Also very interested in the ways in which media circulation and discourse help to formulate insider/outsider divides in subcultural identification.


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