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Campbell's Chicken Soup for the Stamps: a Performance Ethnography
by Tim Carlin
WRIT 1133: Writing and Researching Local Food Communities
Professor Megan Kelly
A performance ethnography is a way of researching a community by using people's words and enacting them verbatim. These performances involve in-depth study of people's body language and life styles and are often accompanied by some form of written analysis or discussion on how the community is portrayed through the piece. The transcript for my final ethnography has been included here, as well as a description of my research process and techniques.
In WRIT 1133, I was tasked with developing my own research questions about food and then producing an ethnography. The first questions I developed related to food access, and I was taken back to my childhood in Philadelphia. I gathered information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food assistance programs around the world, and I realized there were too many voices in this community to bring together in one project in less than ten weeks. I decided to conduct primary research on one voice in one food community and support that research with secondary sources.
When I began to consider how to tell this story, I looked to my love of theatre and specifically the ethnographic performances of Anna Deavere Smith, whose works explore the topics of race and ethnicity. Smith—a well-known actor, playwright, and professor—conducts her research by interviewing people and then creating full plays centered around one theme that emerges from these interviews. Smith uses her interview subjects’ actions and words verbatim in these monologues, giving an authentic representation of people’s feelings about the issues being investigated. For example, in her play Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, Smith takes on the roles of people she interviewed following the violent responses to the 1992 Rodney King trial. In her TED Talk, Smith says, “If you say a word enough, it becomes you.” This observation has largely shaped my interest in carrying out performance ethnography. I realized that many Philadelphians, myself included, have discussed their difficulties with money, food stamps, transportation to and from the food store, and every painful aspect of our food shopping experiences so much that these conversations have become us. All of these experiences have shaped our relationships to food and also made us accept our situation, while at the same time we stopped questioning the world around us.
COLLECTING INTERVIEWS: BEING IN IT, OUT OF IT, AND ALL AROUND IT
Inspired by Smith’s performance ethnographies, I interviewed my best friend from back home, Amber, to construct an accurate monologue depicting her changing relationship with food. My best friend growing up, Amber lived down the block in her uncle’s home with her mother and little sister. Amber’s family has been on food assistance of some form since she was a child. This situation has greatly determined her relationship with her family and how her own developing family is handling food in a hard economy; it also has made her appreciate a new level of access to food that she has recently acquired now that she has a car and a better-paying job. I have known Amber my whole life, and her family once opened their doors to me, adding me into their thin food budget. Knowing her family well was an incredible help with my research because it increased my investment in the project. I cared about Amber’s story and thought it needed to be told. Being “in it” helped me focus on her experience, even as I kept in mind the implications her story has for the community for which she is speaking.
One hurdle I faced was how to shape questions and create an environment that would be conducive to eliciting responses people would want to hear and watch on stage. Since I would be composing a performance from this interview, I needed Amber to be active while she spoke: this is the key for performance ethnography. My first thoughts were to put Amber in a situation where she would be actively food shopping and I would interview her over some form of video chat. We quickly realized that food shopping, staying in budget, and keeping track of a 2-year-old was already too large a task to add an interview into the mix. While it was a shame to lose out on interviewing her in the store, it did give me an even deeper understanding of the experiences Amber was having with food.
We settled on a Skype interview that took place while Amber was putting away her groceries. This allowed for a calm environment where Amber could think while also physically interacting with her surroundings. Interviews can be very informative when the researcher pays attention to the circumstance in general: What is the interviewee doing? Where are they? What time is it? What will they do right after the interview? What did they do right before the interview? A thorough understanding of the interview subject prior to the interview allows the researcher to structure a productive research environment.
After collecting my interview data and engrossing myself in Amber’s relationship to food, I began to feel overwhelmed with the amount of information I had. I was losing perspective, seeing my friend and her life as opposed to an ethnographic inquiry. While being very involved in my topic gave me great insight, I quickly realized that it was also something that could potentially hold me back. Could being Amber’s friend and knowing all of these things about her life be giving me a bias too significant to notice from the inside? It was time to get out.
I got “out of it” by focusing my research on the larger context of the issue. I read news articles and academic essays about food assistance programs, as well as reports by public health officials and other public health data. Though none of these resources directly addressed my specific topic, they helped me craft a new set of interview questions and also helped me compare Amber’s situation to other cases. This process of reviewing the literature also afforded me a chance to consider how this performance ethnography could reach a variety of audiences by including a wider range of themes. One of the best lessons I learned from this project was the importance of being deeply involved and connected to your research but also being able to disconnect and look objectively at the data to see how they connect to other research.
“WHY IS THAT?”
Another influence on my ethnography was the framework for “Understanding Social Life” with Dr. Paul Colomy, which I took in my spring quarter while enrolled in WRIT 1133. In this class, we consistently considered the question: “Why is that?” Though simple in theory, this question forces you to figure out the essence of the subject. For example, I had noticed that many of my friends who were on food stamps had been on them for their whole lives. I noticed that their parents and siblings remained a part of the program throughout their whole lives as well. I didn’t understand why assistance programs were somehow not giving people the aid they needed to get themselves back to stability. Starting with this simple question—“why is that?”—led me to many more questions than answers: questions about social power, food access, and food quality.
Analyzing the function of power in society is, for me, one of the most important roles of research. The essence of my research in this ethnography, like Smith’s, is questioning inequity and injustice to understand how the world works and find solutions to better the human condition. In life, as well as in research, the key is to question everything and always dig deeper, never falling into dogma or bias.
I encourage you to watch this performance ethnography to better understand life on food stamps from my friend Amber’s perspective.
A note from the author
Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia has largely shaped who I have become and how I feel about culture, art, equality, and diversity. Thinking back to my childhood, I remember colorful people and streets dotted with undertones of poverty and hardship I was too blind to see. Not to say I don’t love my roots, but the reality of the situation is that I witnessed people depending on the very government that was holding them back. When I came to DU, I began taking classes in whatever seemed interesting to me, especially theatre classes like “Aesthetics in Performance” and “Slavic Is Sexy” and sociology classes like “Gender in Society” and “Understanding Social Life.” These courses all made me question what privilege is and where the causes for social problems like the achievement gap lie. I began to question my own life and the social inequities I witnessed, without realizing, my whole life.
Entering WRIT 1133, my professor asked us to consider how people define their relationships to food. I thought about my experiences growing up and how those memories have crafted my own relationship with my plate. As I started researching food in my hometown, it quickly became clear to me that there was a story that needed to be heard. I found that Philadelphia is one of the poorest big cities in the country, has a plethora of dietary and health issues, and has a staggering amount of the population living off of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp, benefits. Possibly the most shocking information I learned was that my own neighborhood has been identified as a food desert, meaning that people living there have limited access to and funds for acquiring healthy foods for their families.
I created a performance ethnography as my final piece for this WRIT 1133 class. I want to give a special thanks to my best friend Amber (which is not her real name) for her contributions to this project and her willingness to be a voice for her community. In the end, it is my hope this piece may spark an interest in performance ethnography and also allow the reader to identify his or her own assumptions about this community by engaging with the text.
About the author
Tim is a transfer student in his junior year at the University of Denver. He is currently pursuing a double major in psychology and sociology with a minor in theatre. Tim’s interests include acting, directing, camping, baking, eating baked goods, and spending the summers in Estes Park exploring the Rocky Mountain National Park. He hopes to further his research in performance ethnography and encourages people to find a way to bring art into their research.
Smith, Anna Deveare. “Four American Characters.” TED Talk. TED Conferences. 21 Dec. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.