Performance studies presumes that political economy, cultural continuity, self-fashioning, and interpersonal exchange are embodied, aesthetic, affective, creative, contested, and rhetorical processes whose work can be understood through analyses of their presentational and representational particulars. Scholars in the field investigate storytelling, ritual, dance, music, and theater: live and mediated, professional and amateur. But they also deploy “performance” as a heuristic tool for examining practices of everyday life, history, the economy and the law, material culture, and other cultural forms not typically considered performance with the goal of excavating their aesthetic, theatrical, spectacular, audience-directed qualities, then explaining how these qualities do cultural and political work. Thus, in performance studies, performance is both an object and a method of study: a mode of communication and a strategy for framing and examining cultural artifacts and processes. Performance practice is a primary commitment in performance studies; it is a site to be investigated, a mode of scholarly inquiry, and a tool of scholarly representation. Within the field of communication, it is most closely aligned with rhetoric and critical cultural studies. But its many interdisciplinary incarnations include those that privilege modes of communication other than the linguistic, including dance studies and ethnomusicology.
The field of performance studies is highly interdisciplinary, with its roots in the practices of elocution, the oral interpretation of literature, and theater, as well as anthropology and folklore studies. The fundamentally contested nature of performance as a concept requires researchers to clarify the parameters and presumptions about performance in their analyses, including who or what performs, and in what sense. The field’s investment in the body as a site of knowledge and cultural production is evidenced in its primary methodologies, including performance ethnography, performance historiography, and oral history. This investment in the body also emerges in the field’s use of performed and written autoethnography and in experiments with performative writing.