9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN03 Biographical Perspectives on European Societies

2009-09-03 13:30:00 2009-09-03 15:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 13:30 - 15:00 European Biographies, Art, Performance and Methodology Building II, C2.02

Art in Action: Exploring Poetry Slam with Ethnographic Discourse Analysis

The RN3 conference in Krakow in December 2008 stimulated much debate around the ways in which social scientists can study art, artists, performance and biography. This paper considers some of the issues, concerns and innovations which were addressed by delegates. Particular attention will be paid to: the merits of interdisciplinary research (combining especially sociology, psychology and the arts) the epistemological and theoretical underpinnings of such research what counts as a "text" the performative construction of auto/biography and identity and challenging the micro/macro divide.

These points will be discussed with reference to a recent study on the global phenomenon of poetry slam. Slam is a knockout oral poetry competition, in which poets perform their own work in front of a live audience. Slammers are judged on the quality of their performance and poetry by judges who are typically randomly selected members of that audience. The research at hand focuses on slam in London and Bristol in the U.K., and New York and Chicago in the U.S.. The study uses discourse analytic and ethnographic tools of enquiry to explore how slam participants mobilise poetry, informal conversation and other forms of action to weave stories about themselves and others.

It will be argued that these auto/biographies work both to construct individuals? identities, and to help them to negotiate the status hierarchies which structure their daily lives and interactions. Ethnographic and discourse analytic approaches can thus be combined to produce an informative and sensitive account of the construction of identity in everyday interaction. I will contend that such in-depth explorations of micro level interaction are essential if we are to achieve a full understanding of the macro level social structures and processes which they help to constitute. After all, as Mead (1934: 37) notes, "history is nothing but biography, a whole series of biographies".


Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. In, Morris, C. W. (ed.) Works of George Herbert Mead. Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.