Performing art and performing politics
By Aafke van Mourik Broekman, Tom Postmes, & Ernestine H. Gordijn (University of Groningen, The Netherlands).
For the past years, we have studied the social impact of dance performances. In particular, we studied the process by which these performances generated a sense of solidarity (we-ness) among the audience. Now, you might wonder how this resulted in a political psychology blog? After hearing us present our work at the last EASP Summer School, the coordinators asked us to write this blog. We suspect this may be, in part, because we have entered what some call an era of "post-factual politics" in which the theatrical performance of politicians has more impact than the words they say.
The suggestion that performing arts can help us understand political impact is not so far-fetched. Journalist Gwynn Guilford went “under-cover” to some of the rallies that Donald Trump organized, and describes their impact on the crowd. Everything seems orchestrated in such a way that the audience is physically and emotionally captured by the performance. After a long, ritualized, build-up, a strong sense of communion develops between the audience and Trump in which "we" unite to fight against common enemies and for a common cause. According to Guilford (2016) the key to Trump's political success lies in “his relationship with the crowd”.
If we want to explain the theatrical impact of political events, an actual theatrical performance might be a good starting point to examine how the relationship between performer(s) and their audience develops. Our motivation to research the emergence of solidarity between performers and audiences was grounded on the idea that during performances, people who are not active participators can feel drawn in and feel psychologically part of what they see on stage. It is for this reason that performances such as theatre, cultural rituals and other collective events can instil engender a sense of community and social cohesion (Beeman, 1993; Evans-Pritchard, 1928; Fischer, Callander, Reddish, & Bulbulia, 2013; Hopkins et al., 2016; Khan et al., 2016; Xygalatas et al., 2013)
Our hypothesis was that the solidarity expressed on stage by performers could shape the solidarity (feelings of belonging, identification, and unity) experienced by the audience. In two consecutive years of a performing arts festival we conducted large-scale field experiments. In each experiment we, together with choreographers, developed three dance performances. In each performance we varied how the dancers interacted; the performers displayed mechanical solidarity, organic solidarity, or no solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is based on the notion that individuals can derive their group membership from self-categorisation and sharing characteristics with others: a sense of groupness in which individual differences are marginalized. With organic solidarity, by contrast, individuals derive their group membership from interactions, interdependencies and complementary actions: here individual differences play a key role in the group formation (see e.g. Koudenburg, Postmes, Gordijn, & Van Mourik Broekman, 2015; Postmes, Spears, Lee & Novak, 2005). We compared these to a performance that lacked solidarity. In each of these three performances, all other factors, such as performers, music, costume, and light, were held constant. Audiences got to see only one of these performances, and afterwards we measured their feelings solidarity with the dancers via a questionnaire.
We found that audience members were able to recognize quite accurately how the dancers on stage related to one another. But interestingly, the type of solidarity on display also influenced the relationship that developed between audience and performers. In particular, when the performers did not display solidarity, audience members experienced less solidarity with the performers. When the performers display mechanical solidarity, the audience experienced solidarity with them because of the unity they projected. And when the performers displayed organic solidarity, the audience experienced solidarity because of the unique contributions of each individual dancer. Thus, the performance determined whether, and what kind of solidarity emerged: organic and mechanical displays both instil engender a sense of "us," but for very different reasons.
However, these results do not only apply to dance performances. More recently we asked small groups of participants in the lab to perform in “airbands”, i.e., playing imaginary (air) instruments (either coordinating mechanically, organically, or not at all) while others observed. Here we replicated the findings from the field experiments.
Moreover, in one of the experiments with live dance performances, we also showed that the solidarity witnessed on stage influenced subsequent audience behaviour. In a group task, audience members cooperated and coordinated differently depending on the solidarity seen in the performance. Specifically, audiences that had seen no solidarity cooperated less effectively. Audiences that had seen mechanical or organic solidarity were equally successful in the task; however, audiences that had seen mechanical solidarity were much quicker in organizing themselves than audiences that had seen organic solidarity. In other words, solidarity was not only measured via questionnaire responses, it was also visible in group-behaviour.
What all these experiments showed is that solidarity expressed on stage can be transferred to a “passive” audience. Thus, it is not necessary for an audience to actually partake in the actions of those on stage, in order to feel as if they are part of the group. Clearly, these dance performances were anything but political. But the outcomes they generated are of political interest. The group dynamic processes that we observe in these studies may also operate during political events such as rallies, demonstrations, etc. Politics is often analysed and evaluated for its content, but the form may be just as important: Whether we look at the recent US elections, at the triumphs of ancient Rome, or at the carefully staged Nazi rallies, history is filled with attempts of politicians to unite "the people" with a theatrical display (see also Reicher and Haslam, 2016). Of course, the words uttered at these events matter. But in some sense, the impact of dance performances may help us see more clearly why these rallies are so impactful, precisely because dance has so little overlap with politics. Therefore, this kind of research offers insights into fundamental psychological processes by which the relationship between performer and spectator can be transformed.
About the author
AAFKE VAN MOURIK BROEKMAN works as a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. She received a talent grant from the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO) to, together with Prof. Dr. Tom Postmes, Prof. Dr. Ernestine Gordijn, and Dr. Namkje Koudenburg, investigate how small groups can draw in “passive” observers. They aim to show that bystanders can get psychologically involved, even without participating actively. This process may, at a fundamental level, underpin a broad range of group growth phenomena and alter our understanding of large group formation. For their dance research they work together with choreographers collective Random Collision (http://www.randomcollision.net).
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