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More in this section Partcipatory Research and Learning in the Performing Arts

Participatory research?

Participatory research, also referred to as ‘insider research’, is a familiar model in ethnomusicology. The student of music learns about the music of a foreign culture by studying an instrument (or vocal style) and playing in musical ensembles related to the musical tradition that is being studied. The researcher’s primary ‘informant’ or consultant is thus commonly also his or her teacher and co-performer. S/he might even function as a teacher’s formal or informal apprentice. The aim of such practice-led research is the development of competency in the musical culture of another culture, famously described by American ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood as bi-musicality. This competency allows the student-researcher to write about an outside musical culture in terms of process, not only product. A researcher is also able to ‘learn about learning’ and gain insights into practices with limited associated verbal explanation.


Henry Stobart perforing with a siku panpipes ensemble in the Bolivian Andes

Participatory research has a place in the study and research of other performing arts as well. Anthropologists once worried about ‘going native’ and watched social dance uncomfortably from the margins, attributed by dance anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna to anxiety resulting from discrimination. Since the 1970s, anthropologists have moved from participant-observation to the observation of participation, in the terms of Barbara Tedlock, experiencing and observing ‘their own and others’ co-participation within the ethnographic encounter.’ Dancing together with one’s informants is no longer taboo- it is to be encouraged. Similarly, ethnographically-minded students of theatre are likely to do more than watch plays; they are prone to act as dramaturgs or act in them, thereby acquiring theatrical competencies not alike Hood’s bi-musicality. Writing a PhD thesis about noh theatre today, for example, very likely involves learning at least the basics of noh performance oneself, and might involve allegiance to a traditional noh master.

This inter-disciplinary project examines how participatory learning and research is embedded in university curricula and is practiced as a methodology in fieldwork-based studies across the performing arts. The project offers a snapshot of current practice in higher education, not only in Britain but in other countries as well. Attention is paid to the social field of learning; the dynamics of ‘talking about it’ and ‘just doing it’; sort and degree of creative input allowed the student-researcher (from passive repetition of rigidly defined strips of behaviour to free improvisation); moments of reflexivity in the observation of participation; differences and continuities between participatory research and practice-as-research; ethical responsibilities entailed by becoming an insider; relations between participatory research in the performing arts with participation-oriented research in other fields (such as community-based participatory research). 


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