The University of Arizona

Farming as a performance: a conceptual and methodological contribution to the ecology of practices

Dominic Glover


In two widely cited articles, the first of which was published almost 30 years ago, the anthropologist Paul Richards described the situated practices of small-scale farmers as a type of performance, akin to a musical or theatrical performance (1989, 1993). This definition, applied specifically to small-scale and subsistence agriculture, has a powerful appeal for good reasons. This article examines performance as a conceptual framework and tool for studying small-scale farming practice and technological change. Taking the comparison with musical or theatrical endeavour seriously, the article explores the dynamics of performance by individuals and groups; considers alternative ways of conceiving the 'stage' and the 'audience'; and examines the nature of the performers' skills and competence, through an elaboration of key concepts such as practice, rehearsal, repertoire and improvisation. The article also discusses the important implications of a performance being situated in a particular time and place, shaped by its surrounding socio-cultural and ecological context and conditioned by uncertainty. The article proposes that ethnographic or technographic methods are appropriate for studying performance, and considers the ethical responsibilities of the researcher when intervening in a performance from its outside. The argument is framed as a contribution to political ecology, especially an ecology of practices.

Key words:  Performance, farming, practice, skill, technography

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