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.
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
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
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.
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:
Write down where you see yourself, in each of these categories.
Think about which feel most important to you, at this point in your life.
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
Blackademic Lives Matter: An Interview with Lavelle Porter. By Patricia A. Matthew. LA Review of Books. September 9, 2020
How Black Lives Matter Came to the Academy. By Kristal Brent Zook. The New Yorker, Jan 30 2021
A Black Professor’s Colleague Called the Cops on Him. What the School Did Next Made It Much Worse. By Jackie Flynn Mogensen. Mother Jones, December 17, 2020
Vernon, K. (2020). The Outside of the Inside: Blackness and the Remaking of Canadian Institutional Life. The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, 7(3), 258-265.
Amplifying Black Voices: The convenient narratives that perpetuate racism (part 1). By Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. The Source Thu Oct 1 2020
Interrogating Allyship in Cross-Race Doctoral Advising Relationships. By Shana E. Rochester and Nell K. Duke. Medium. Feb 24 2021.
CUNY dean quits after less than a year, citing workload and racism. By Melissa Klein. New York Post. October 17, 2020
Microaggressions Really Are Aggressive. by Monnica T Williams. Psychology Today. Oct 31, 2020
White people's attitudes to Meritocracy and race
Meritocracy or Bias? By Scott Jaschik. Inside Higher Ed August 13, 2013
Anthropology and Archaeology specific resources
Laster Pirtle, W. N. (2021). We, too, are academia: Demanding a seat at the table. Feminist Anthropology.
Archaeology In The Time Of Black Lives Matter. A panel discussion held on Thursday June 25th 2020. Sponsored by the Society of Black Archaeologists, Theoretical Archaeology Group (North America), and Columbia University Center for Archaeology
Flewellen, A., Dunnavant, J., Odewale, A., Jones, A., Wolde-Michael, T., Crossland, Z., & Franklin, M. (2021). “The Future of Archaeology Is Antiracist”: Archaeology in the Time of Black Lives Matter. American Antiquity, 1-20.
Resources and exercises to explore your own biases
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. By Peggy McIntosh
SEED project guide to Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (Scroll to the end of the page to see questions for facilitators, which can guide you through your reading and response to the text.)