Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology

MAGH Seminar – Sara Jo Breslow: “When the Anthropologist Becomes a Character” (11/13/2019)

Posted: 11/11/2019 (Local Events)

Please join MAGH on Wednesday Nov. 13 when the Medical Anthropology and Global Health Seminar Series presents Dr. Sara Jo Breslow

 “When the Anthropologist becomes a Character:  Critical Reflections on the Perils and Possibilities of Research-Based Theatre.”

Date:  Wednesday  November 13

Time:  3:30-4:50

Location:  Johnson 102

Abstract: Making a theatrical documentary from interviews about conflict surrounding salmon habitat restoration and farmland preservation in the Skagit Valley of Washington State was originally conceived as a way to present my ethnographic results in a transformative medium for my research subjects.  I hoped that the play would inspire bitterly opposed farmers, Native Americans, and environmentalists to see each other in a new light and recognize their potential to collectively address common challenges.  Instead, making the play became an unexpected way to critically reflect on anthropological research and cross-disciplinary collaboration, as well as issues inherent in the Skagit conflict itself.  Creating a drama-worthy script forced me to hone in on the most compelling interview passages and to constantly strive for a narrative arc.  These spare requirements of theater exposed the paradox of academic research.  Its hallmarks of theorization, accuracy, and caveats can weaken the emotional power of an argument and its potential to influence change.  Yet at the same time, the appeal of telling a good story can overwhelm the critical, subtle analysis that is necessary to make sense of complex and incongruous phenomena.  My decision to collaborate with a professional theatre artist further exposed norms of anthropology and academia that I took for granted, such as ethical responsibility to research subjects and basic definitions of research and authorship.  But it was our need for a narrator that transformed the collaboration into a drama of its own:  we agreed the narrator should be the anthropologist – or, me.  I was then confronted with the strange and painful process of being represented as a character in the play – and with the possibility that mis-representations of me might be viewed by audiences that included colleagues, research subjects and potential employers.  While I ultimately regained control of how I was represented, the experience exposed the uncomfortable reality that most anthropologists’ research subjects are not able to exercise such authorial oversight.  In these ways the process of making the play transformed by attempt at research-based theatre into a method of critical reflective theatre-based research.  It enabled me to write a more deeply informed ethnography about the multi-vocal Skagit conflict, with new personal insight into the nature of conflict and collaboration, the desire to tell one’s own story, and the fraught practice of anthropological representation.

Biography: Sara Jo Breslow is an environmental anthropologist broadly interested in the interdependencies of sustainability and social justice. She serves as the Social Science Lead at EarthLab at the University of Washington where she catalyzes collaborative environmental problem-solving using transdisciplinary, participatory, and arts-based approaches. In her own research, Sara uses ethnographic and mixed methods to study senses of place, environmental conflict, and human well-being with a focus on the Salish Sea region. As a leader and member of various working groups and advisory committees, she translates social science insights into tools for decision-making at local to global scales, including at the Puget Sound Partnership, the Western Governors’ Association, NOAA Fisheries, and the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Sara holds a BA in biology from Swarthmore College and a PhD in anthropology from the University of Washington.

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Date: 11/13/2019

Time: 3:30-4:50

Location: Johnson 102