Teaching Ethnography through Theater

Abstract pink and orange paint
Photo by Steve Johnson.

Anthropologists often distinguish ethnography from other methods through the role of the researcher. In ethnography, the researcher’s social position, embodied experiences, and self-reflexivity are considered central to the research process. Despite this attention, how to bring “the experiential, embodied, and empathetic aspects of ethnographic research into the classroom” remains an open question (McGranahan 2014, 23). This post suggests that theater is one possible answer. Inspired by my participation in a master’s level course led by Kristine Krause and Tina Harris, I encourage teachers to use theater-based activities to teach ethnographic methods and insight. I explain how stagings, or Annika Strauss’s (2017) method of image theater, can be used in introductory courses and to prepare upper-level students to start ethnographic research.

Theater-based activities sensitize beginning anthropology students to fieldwork methods. They lend concreteness to what may seem like a vague or unknowable process, allowing students to practice observing, acting, and reflecting on social situations. They challenge the notion that fieldwork stems from a geographically bounded field that researchers enter or exit, highlighting what a researcher is doing during fieldwork and not where.

In a staging, students recreate a “frozen” scene or still-life tableau from social life. Rather than acting with dialogue, the scene is paused, offering students the chance to observe and reflect on a single moment in time. This still scene can be of the instructor’s or a student’s choosing, and derive from media or their own research. A helpful place to start can be a familiar scene from campus, such as the library or dining hall; this can help students apply anthropological techniques and insights to their everyday lives.

During the staging, a director positions and coaches the student actors to recreate the scene without using words. The director should not verbally describe the scene at all before starting. Instead, using silent gestures, the director arranges the chosen actors into position with the specific expressions, body language, and spatial configuration of their chosen social setting and moment. Before starting, remind the director not to touch the actors but to mime the body language and positions for the actors to mirror.

Once the director is satisfied that the stage reflects their scene, they say “freeze.” At this point, the rest of the students have a few minutes to walk around the scene and make observations. When everyone has had a chance to observe, “unfreeze” the actors. Begin a collective discussion regarding the actors’ positions in space, possible relationships, and body language. Ask the actors of the scene how they feel, what they noticed, and what they think is happening in the scene. Consider asking: what are the relations between these people? What can we guess about their social position or power relative to one another? Prompt the class to imagine this is a scene from their own research: what would they note down as important? What theories might help them best understand this moment? Consider drawing a word cluster on the board to note comments and to illustrate the emerging themes.

Finally, after gathering impressions, ask the director to reveal more about the scene and where it was drawn from. Did the class’s (and actors’) understanding of the scene match the director’s initial notes and perceptions? Why or why not? Did any surprising comments arise? What is still puzzling about the scene? Through these questions, guide the student’s processing of the scene and offer a model of how ethnographers record and interpret their observations.

Through this activity and discussion, the staging helps students pay attention to relations in space, moving away from individual or psychological arguments and towards the structure of a social setting. It also practices the self-reflexivity key to fieldwork, as students must examine how their position shaped their perception of the scene.

Furthermore, stagings help students to question how they make arguments from observation. For example, during one round in my master’s course, it was striking how quickly students assumed an actor’s race or gender was reflective of their character’s social position within the scene. Students immediately identified a male actor in the scene as holding power, but had no concrete evidence to point to why they thought this. This suggests students are not paying close attention to the micro-ways power is produced and negotiated in social life but only observing what they expect to be there. This mistaken assumption turned into a productive learning moment, as the instructor guided the students to be more specific when they connect an observation to an argument and to resist assuming something is already there. The stagings require students to move beyond their assumptions of social life to practice connecting observations with arguments. In this manner, stagings help students connect theoretical questions to concrete observables—a skill with which many beginning social science students struggle.

Similarly, another student was researching social class but was struggling to turn her field notes of a party into an argument about the reproduction of elite status. By recreating a scene from the party and hearing feedback from the scene’s actors, she could more clearly see who was creating connections within the party and why others were excluded.

Stagings do not have to remain confined to participant observation—one student staged a moment from her interview with someone she perceived as more important than her. She was nervous during the interview and used her body language to convey this within the staging, such as slouching and looking down at her notes rather than making eye contact. Observing and acting out an interview steeped in power dynamics opened up a productive line of discussion among the class. How did the interviewer’s feelings and posture shape the interview? How does an interviewee feel when faced with a nervous interviewer and how might it shape their answers? What would the result have been had the interviewer been more confident? Although a simple exercise, the staging made visible that interviews are not a straightforward form of data collection but an embodied, social process. This helped students examine the effects of power relations on the research process, and how their own personalities and social positions shape their approach.

Staging activities work best in small classes of up to thirty-five students, but can be modified to suit a larger class. One modification is to break up into simultaneous, separate scenes, while another option is to have only a small group of students perform while other students watch. Finding space can also be a challenge, requiring either a classroom with moveable tables and chairs, or perhaps outdoor space if the indoor classroom is cramped.

There may be resistance to the activity among students, including feelings of awkwardness or questions of “why are we doing this, it’s not ‘real’ work.” Experience suggests that these students may change their minds afterward, particularly if they go on to do their own research. As a participant, I felt slightly silly during the first staging, wondering what the point of the activity was—but a year later as I was doing my own fieldwork, I found myself thinking back to it often and remembering it with sharp detail. The fear of being awkward or doing something wrong is a common feature of ethnographic work, which by nature entails the risk of social interaction. Having the chance to practice these moments of awkwardness can be worthwhile in itself.

As a teacher, theater methods may be outside of our comfort zone in the classroom and seem to require extra preparation or take valuable time away from important content. However, an activity like this does not require any more preparation than a class discussion, especially if a few student volunteers serve as directors. All it requires is some in-class time to adequately prepare the students and lay the grounds for the activity. Additionally, in reading- and writing-intensive courses, a more interactive activity can provide a respite for students while deepening understanding of ethnographic processes. One of the paradoxes of anthropological work is that while we emphasize the embodied nature of research, our teaching and analysis often remain strictly textual (Strauss 2017). Using theater methods offers a chance to break down this divide and give students the chance to start playing with and reflecting on the process of using themselves as research devices.


McGranahan, Carole. 2014. “What is Ethnography? Teaching Ethnographic Sensibilities without Fieldwork.” Teaching Anthropology 4: 23–36.

Strauss, Annika. 2017. “Experiments with Image Theatre: Accessing and Giving Meaning to Sensory Experiences in Social Anthropology.” Learning and Teaching 10, no. 2: 1–24.