Performance, ethnography and design as research methods

“What, all three of them?” I hear you ask. Well, yes, kind of. Because they can be (often inherently) connected.

I touched on performance as a design research methodology, when I talked about defamiliarisation and design as research methods. Indeed, via performance ethnography, it is hard to avoid the connection.

But performative methods have long been used within many areas of academic research. The modern roots for this lie in sociological and organisational discourse (Oswick, Keenoy et al. 2001), in particular Kenneth Burke’s (1945) A Grammar of Motives and Erving Goffman’s (1973) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

In extending dramaturgy into organisational practice (and drawing on Goffman’s work), Iain Mangham described theatre as a ‘metaphor for understanding and describing our everyday activity as citizens and employees’ (2005 p. 941). The groundwork laid by Goffman, Mangham and others eventually led to dramaturgic approaches entering the mainstream of organisational studies and also within industry (Nissley, Taylor et al. 2004).

Within pedagogy itself, performative approaches have most commonly been expressed in the form of process drama, where drama was elevated over and above being simply an artistic medium dealing with imagined scenarios (Edmiston 2003), or theatrical techniques. Often this emphasises improvised dramatic methods (Schneider and Jackson 2000), using drama as an experiential research tool with a focus on process and learning (O’Neill 1995). Indeed, within design, improvisation is an accepted practice (Büscher, Gill et al. 2001, Gerber 2007, Bredies, Chow et al. 2010).

With the use of personas and scenarios, for example in human–computer interaction (HCI) design (Penin and Tonkinwise 2009, Eriksson, Artman et al. 2013), many areas of design can be considered inherently performative. Some have even argued for designers to be considered dramaturges (Meany and Clark 2012). Graphic design, in particular, involves planning, creating and producing outputs (real or metaphorical) purely with the intention of (like theatre) visually presenting and communicating to an audience (Gillieson and Garneau 2018), thus framing both the graphic design process itself, and its outcomes, as performative.

Performance ethnography, ethnodrama, documentary (or verbatim) theatre, are interrelated terms and practices that – as with ethnography itself – tackle the transient complexities of human interaction via forms of performative reportage which maintain the characteristics of the original within an observable performative framework (Ackroyd and O’Toole 2010, Saldaña 2011). Methods have ranged from simply repurposing oral histories, to forms of community action (Anderson 2007), and have also been used for dramatising the experiences of people involved in contemporary historical events (Mienczakowski 2006).

Some fascinating examples can be seen in Anna Deavere Smith’s solo work (yes, her from The West Wing and Nurse Jackie), which involves interviewing a series of participants, scripting their words and then re-performing the interviews (Smith 2005). Tom Barone (2002) suggests that Smith’s approach enables third parties to understand participants’ motivations vicariously. Thus, Smith’s performative method mirrors yet also enables critiques of the topics being portrayed (Denzin 2001). This mirroring has parallels with Meisiek and Barry’s analysis of organisational drama as a looking glass (Meisiek and Barry 2007). 

This metaphorical mirroring takes us full circle back to defamiliarisation as a research methodology and, by default, as a design research method. But it also reinforces the inherent performative and ethnographic elements of design which, in turn, further indicates the broader interdisciplinarity of design itself (Meron 2020). And more power to that!

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Anderson, M. (2007). “Making Theatre from Data: Lessons for Performance Ethnography from Verbatim Theatre.” NJ 31(1): 79-91.

Barone, T. (2002). “From Genre Blurring to Audience Blending: Reflections on the Field Emanating from an Ethnodrama.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 33(2): 255-267. doi: 10.1525/aeq.2002.33.2.255

Bredies, K., R. Chow and G. Joost (2010). “Addressing Use as Design: A Comparison of Constructivist Design Approaches.” The Design Journal 13(2): 157–180.

Burke, K. (1945). A grammar of motives. New York,, Prentice-Hall, inc.

Büscher, M., S. Gill, P. Mogensen and D. Shapiro (2001). “Landscapes of Practice: Bricolage as a Method for Situated Design.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 10(1): 1-28.

Denzin, N. K. (2001). “The reflexive interview and a performative social science.” Qualitative research 1(1): 23-46. doi: 10.1177/146879410100100102

Edmiston, B. (2003). “What is my position? Role, frame, and positioning when using process drama.” Research in Drama Education 8: 221-231.

Eriksson, E., H. Artman and A. Swartling (2013). The secret life of a persona: when the personal becomes private. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Paris, France, ACM: 2677-2686.

Gerber, E. (2007). Improvisation Principles and Techniques for Design. CHI 2007. San Jose, CA, USA, ACM.

Gillieson, K. and S. Garneau (2018). A Case for Graphic Design Thinking. Advancements in the Philosophy of Design. P. E. Vermaas and S. p. Vial. Cham, Springer International Publishing.

Goffman, E. (1973). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York, Overlook P.

Mangham, I. L. (2005). “Vita Contemplativa: The Drama of Organizational Life.” Organization Studies 26(6): 941–958. doi: 10.1177/0170840605051824

Meany, M. M. and T. Clark (2012). “Design Dramaturgy: A Case Study in New Media, Humor and Artificial Intelligence.” Design Principles & Practice: An International Journal 6(1): 59-71.

Meisiek, S. and D. Barry (2007). “Through the Looking Glass of Organizational Theatre: Analogically Mediated Inquiry in Organizations.” Organization Studies 28(12).

Meron, Y. (2020). “Re-performing Design: Using dramaturgy to uncover graphic designers’ perceptions of stakeholders.” Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal 8(1): 71-90. doi: 10.31273/eirj.v8i1.701

Mienczakowski, J. (2006). Emergent Methods in Social Research. Thousand Oaks, California, SAGE Publications, Inc.

Nissley, N., S. S. Taylor and L. Houden (2004). “The Politics of Performance in Organizational Theatre-Based Training and Interventions.” Organization Studies 25(5): 817–839.

O’Neill, C. (1995). Drama worlds : a framework for process drama. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann.

Oswick, C., T. Keenoy and D. Grant (2001). “Editorial: Dramatizing and Organizing: Acting and being.” Journal of Organizational Change Management 14(3): 218-224.

Penin, L. and C. Tonkinwise (2009). The Politics and Theatre of Service Design. IASDR 2009. Seoul, Korea.

Saldaña, J. (2011). Ethnotheatre: Research from Page to Stage. New York, Taylor & Francis.

Schneider, J. J. and S. A. W. Jackson (2000). “Process Drama: A Special Space and Place for Writing.” The Reading Teacher 54(1): 38-51.

Smith, A. D. (2005). “Four American characters.”   Retrieved 22 June 2014, 2014, from