CEE | Center for Experimental Ethnography
A blog of the Center for Experimental Ethnography
Performance as public work
Youth as "Civic Actors" For Policy and Practice in Liberia
by Jasmine Blanks Jones
PhD Candidate, UPENN Graduate School of Education and
Department of Africana Studies
Multimodal notes from fieldwork supported by the 2018-2019 Multimodal Summer Research Grant at CEE.
This study centers young people’s collective efforts to shape policies and practices that impact the wellness of their communities through the performing arts by engaging with a youth theatre company in Liberia that I founded in 2010 alongside of several Liberian advocacy organizations that utilize drama as a primary method to disseminate awareness messaging and collect data for policy change and public health initiatives. The content of these performances is rooted in social, economic and political factors that impact the quality of life and future aspirations of the young people who are centered in this study. The project focuses on physical gestures and highlights the “multiplicity of responses and interpretations of theater performances” which reveal “the relationship between performance and nationalism… and struggles for power between and among citizens and states” (Covington-Ward, 2015, p. 23) to investigate three questions: 1) How are young people leveraging cultural production to advocate for alternatives to policies and practices impacting their wellbeing as emerging citizens? 2) In what ways do the performing arts create possibilities for collective work towards a shared project, and how are artists’ projects made possible or constrained by the development agendas of donor organizations? 3) How can performance ethnography be used with youth to add authority to their civic practices?
While participant observation may allow the researcher to navigate between outsider and insider status (Creswell & Poth, 2017), in my aim to understand the embodied meanings of citizenship, I draw on the work of Conquergood and Turner and engage in co-performance: “The power dynamic of the research situation changes when the ethnographer moves from the gaze of the distanced and detached observer to the intimate involvement and engagement of ‘coactivity’ or co-performance with historically situated, named, ‘unique individuals’” (Conquergood, 1991, p.189).
Rehearsals will be captured by video and analyzed for gestures that invoke social hierarchies (Conquergood, 2002); video clips will be viewed and discussed in focus groups using the event-recall-feedback method designed for research with Liberian musicians (Stone & Stone, 1981). Through this study, I hope to lift the potential of dramatic performance as a key indicator of youth civic engagement with implications for policy and practice.
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