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What is Performative Informality?

Performative Informality is a phrase I coined to describe the subtle forms of inequality that arise in academic communities that are conceptualized as friendship-based and egalitarian. While rejecting explicit hierarchy, academic communities in the US have unwritten expectations about what appropriately 'friendly' behavior looks like.


Problems arise for academics who come to the US from other countries, and don't get the specific cultural expectations of what 'friendly' looks like here. Or for people from non-middle class and non-white backgrounds within the US, who don't experience academic spaces as relaxed and welcoming. 

You can read more about this concept in my article Myths of Meritocracy, Friendship, and Fun Work: class and gender in North American academic communities (pdf). That article generated some controversy and debate, and the idea of performative informality has been picked up by both archaeologists and other academic fields

In 2021 I was invited to discuss this concept during  the Presidential/Plenary Session at the Society of American Archaeology virtual meeting. During the recorded portion of my presentation I said I would make a further list of resources and links available. You can find those below.

A recording of my paper is viewable on YouTube, and other presenters are also sharing their presentations, for instance you can download Laura Health-Stout's here

SAA Plenary Session, 2021

What Is at Stake? The Impacts of Inequity and Harassment on the Practice of Archaeology
Organizers: Amber VanDerwarker, Maureen Meyers, Joe Watkins

Session Abstract

Research and reporting on equity and harassment in the academy and across both public and private sectors has revealed the extent of chronic inequalities and significant problematic behaviors in a variety of workplace settings. Those most negatively affected by these often illegal behaviors are women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and under-represented minorities (URM). For archaeologists, workplaces include many locales (offices, labs, classrooms, field sites, conferences) and thus many potential sites for inequity, harassment, and assault to occur. This is not a women’s problem, but a disciplinary issue affecting the very performance of archaeology. In addressing this looming and serious problem, this session brings together both students and professionals to consider: (1) equity (e.g., gender pay gap, publication/citation practices); and (2) sexual harassment and assault (e.g., as experienced by different subgroups, effects on professional outcomes, effective training and reporting, resources for survivors, etc.). Wherever possible, papers include recommendations for future directions at several scales (e.g., individuals, workplaces, field settings, conferences). This session is timely, and we hope that highlighting these issues at the forefront of SAA’s annual meeting broadens the dialogue to the larger archaeological community so that we may collectively consider preventative solutions in addition to post-hoc sanctions.


Info on My Paper

Leighton_SAA 2021_Single slide.jpg
Performative Informality Hurts Everyone: Getting to the Root of Intersectional Inequalities in Archaeology


This presentation will discuss subtle forms of intersectional inequality that arise when academic communities are conceptualized as friendship-based and egalitarian, rejecting explicit hierarchy.


I have described this as 'performative informality' and argued that it stems from a meritocratic ideology that inadvertently reproduces Euro-American white-male privilege. In a discipline that prides itself on its friendliness, openness, and alcohol-fueled drinking culture, those who find themselves unable to enact or perform informality appropriately are at a distinct disadvantage.


Drawing from a multisited ethnography of Andeanist archaeologists, I have made the case that it is the ephemerality and plausible deniability of performative informality that makes it hard to recognize and thus mitigate against. This argument draws on and contributes to the theorization of gender discrimination in archaeology, studies of work and labor, and feminist Jo Freedman’s concept of “the tyranny of structurelessness.”


In the spirit of ensuring our feminism does not inadvertently reproduce Euro-American white-women’s privilege, this presentation will explicitly focus on the intersectionality of discrimination in archaeology. Namely, how performative informality holds back women, but also people of color, those from working class backgrounds, non-US archaeologists, and others who do not have ‘cultural fit’ in North American archaeological communities.

Exercise instructions

​The goal in this exercise is to identify your multiple identities, and to think about how they shape your experience as an archaeologist.


Using the RESPECTFUL model as a guide:

  1. Write down where you see yourself, in each of these categories.

  2. Think about which feel most important to you, at this point in your life.

  3. Write down 3-4 privileges that identity gives you in academia/archaeology

Want an example to get started? The image above shows the examples I wrote down for myself, and showed during the SAA presentation. Right click to view full size.

Links and Further Reading


White people's attitudes to Meritocracy and race

Anthropology and Archaeology specific resources

Resources and exercises to explore your own biases

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