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Ethnography's Embodiment

A visit with Elaine Lawless, Professor of English, Folklore Studies

By Darcy Holtgrave
Published: - Topics: gender studies religious studies domestic violence folklore ethnography

An ethnographer’s work is metaphorically embodied; eye for detail and ear for story, to start, are crucial to writing about culture. Elaine Lawless, MU Professor of Folklore Studies in the English Department, shows us that ethnography also requires heart and nerve. Heart allows scholars to listen empathically to the perspectives and opinions of the people being written about, enriching scholarship with insider perspective; nerve for advocating social change makes scholarship ever relevant to the service of humanity.

One of Lawless’s most well-known contributions to cultural scholarship is “reciprocal ethnography,” wherein a scholar shares his or her academic writing with the people whose practices and culture are the subject, starting a conversation about interpretation and meaning that is included as part of the finished product. She formulated reciprocal ethnography after a woman whose vocation was the subject of one of Lawless’s early books, Handmaidens of the Lord, read it and objected to the way she and her beliefs had been represented. Lawless was distressed; she cared deeply about this woman, whom she had come to know as a friend, and learning about her different perspective prompted Lawless to devise a way to accommodate it while remaining true to her own theories. Lawless explains, “There was a crisis in anthropology and folklore in the 80’s and early 90’s that we should not speak for people, that we should allow their voices to be heard, and so this was my attention to address that problem.”

Lawless recognizes “there are limits about when you can do reciprocal ethnography,” which became particularly clear through her work with survivors of domestic violence. Working in a women’s shelter in Columbia, Missouri, Lawless collected residents’ life stories, and she observed, “First of all, they were totally traumatized. Percentage-wise, a lot of them go back to abusive homes. And they had no time or interest in reading what I was writing…There are times when it really doesn’t work.” In that case, Lawless worked closely with shelter workers and other survivors to determine if her work was on target. The methodology of reciprocal ethnography remains an important tool in folklore and ethnographic training.

Lawless’s early work addresses feminist issues, particularly women’s agency in typically male-dominated settings, and her work with the shelter marked a move further toward advocacy in her scholarship. “I wanted to show these women as survivors, not victims,” she tells us. This led not only to more publications such as the book Women Escaping Violence, but also a collaborative relationship with Heather Carver of the Theater Department at MU. Carver suggested that the two begin the Troubling Violence Performance Project, an ongoing troupe of about 15 university students who volunteer to perform monologues of survivors from a first-person point of view. Presentations by three or four performers in one setting are followed by audience and participant discussions about domestic and relationship violence. “It’s a way to introduce the topic and talk about problems that aren’t going away in our culture,” Lawless explains. The project also led Lawless and Carver to write a book together, Troubling Violence, that experiments with the form of academic writing by presenting the entire text as a performance script.

Advocacy also drives Lawless’s most recent work involving the small African-American town of Pinhook, Missouri. In 2011, when the Mississippi River threatened the town of Cairo, Illinois, the Army Corps of Engineers blew holes in a levee near Pinhook on the Missouri side of the river to ease the water levels. Pinhook residents had no warning that their homes were going to be flooded and destroyed. As of January 2015, residents have not received any assistance from FEMA or any other government agency to help them rebuild their town.

In the fall of 2011, Lawless enlisted the aid of her former PhD student Todd Lawrence to collaborate with her on a fieldwork project to document the experiences of Pinhook’s former residents. Their interviews with mayor Debra Tarver, other former residents, and officials involved in the decision to destroy the levee were put together in a 30-minute documentary film, Taking Pinhook (featuring voiceover by MU’s own Clyde Ruffin), which debuted at MU during Black History Month in 2014. Lawless and Lawrence are also co-writing a book for the University of Missouri Press on the destruction of the town. The two hope that publicizing the story will help bring aid to the group. “Our dream was that the book and the film would end with the Pinhook people rebuilding their town; I mean, that was our wish, and it certainly was their wish, and that isn’t how it’s ending…It’s been very discouraging.” However, Tarver and her community remain active in pursuing their goal, and their future may yet hold a happy ending.

Lawless’s partnership with Todd Lawrence is just one example of her continuing relationships with her students. Although she is likes to say she is now in semi-retirement, she will continue teaching, writing, and mentoring. She estimates that she has graduated over 25 PhDs in Folklore Studies during her years at MU and has eight more to graduate in the upcoming years. Her pride in the accomplishments of her students is evident; when asked what she thinks is her most significant contribution to her academic field, she unhesitatingly answers, “My students.”

Lawless’s newest project reflects the influence of mentorship on her own life and also continues her interest in experimentation with writing. She is working on the memoir of her mentor in the MU English Department, Win Horner, a noted rhetoric and composition scholar and champion of writing across the campus who passed away in February of 2014. Horner had wanted to write a memoir, but her health made that difficult, so Lawless visited with her repeatedly to capture her story on audio and video. “So now I’m in the position of doing something very strange,” she tells us, “I’m writing a memoir about someone who is gone, and it’s not my memoir. I want it to be what it was, a conversation between her and me…I’m very proud to have the gift of her story to tell in her own words.”

The metaphors that we can use to describe the work of ethnography are, appropriately, metaphors of the body. Eyes, ears, heart, and nerve are parts of people, the true center of an ethnographer’s work. This metaphorical embodiment also connects with one of the things we create with our corporeality: voice. Lawless’s work shows us the importance of using the tools of academic scholarship to amplify the voices of stigmatized or underrepresented people in order to effect positive social change.