An ethnographer’s work is metaphorically embodied; eye for detail and ear for story, to start, are crucial to writing about culture. Elaine Lawless, MU Professor of Folklore Studies in the English Department, shows us that ethnography also requires heart and nerve. Heart allows scholars to listen empathically to the perspectives and opinions of the people being written about, enriching scholarship with insider perspective; nerve for advocating social change makes scholarship ever relevant to the service of humanity.
When we muse about “the arts,” it is often the fine arts that come to mind: famous plays, distinguished sculptures, celebrated paintings, and other aesthetic creations. However, art does not end at museum walls or with the last page of a book—art in many forms is present in ordinary life. For Dr. Lisa Higgins, witnessing the presence of traditional art in Missourians’ lives was an “empowering” experience that, together with her already “pervasive interest” in stories and storytelling, led her to undertake graduate work in folk studies at the University of Missouri. During the early nineties, she interned with the Missouri Folk Arts Program—a joint program of the Missouri Arts Council and MU’s Museum of Art & Archaeology—and gained first-hand experience with public folk art programs working to recognize and support Missouri artists. Working for the Southern Arts Federation (now South Arts) during the late nineties further piqued her interest in public support for the arts, and, with this experience under her belt, she returned in 1999 to her “dream job” as director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program and completed her PhD in Folklore and Rhetoric in 2008.
After she wrote about women in the pulpit, Dr. Lawless spent several months conducting ethnographic research in a domestic violence shelter.
Dr. Lawless describes how she first became interested in ethnography and folklore.
Dr. Elaine Lawless describes how she uses reciprocal ethnography and advocates for its use in other ethnographic research.
While studying Pentecostal women, Dr. Lawless noticed some of them were serving in leadership positions — which many religions don’t allow. This observation led her to study women who preached in other denominations and how they entered their service.
Dr. Elaine Lawless talks about how she first learned about the flooding of Pinhook, Missouri, and her decision to help tell the town’s story.
When Dr. Lawless was a PhD student at Indiana University, she met the Pentecostal women whose invitation to worship with them became the foundation for scholarship and friendship. One result of her work was the film Joy Unspeakable, which she worked on with folklorist Betsy Peterson.
Dr. Higgins wants “kids [to] understand that they’ve known all their lives,” and talks about several of the Missouri Folk Arts Program’s initiatives to bring the folk arts to the schools.
The Community Scholars project taps into local knowledge of the folk and traditional arts by building relationships between MFAP and local experts and scholars. These individuals help keep the Missouri Folk Arts Program updated on developments in the traditional arts around the state, and in return MFAP offers training in digital recording, archiving, editing, project development and public presentation.
Dr. Higgins talks about the history of public sector folklore and the mission of the Missouri Folk Arts Program, whose task is to “identify, document, and present folk and traditional arts in the state.”
Dr. Higgins discusses her background in folklore studies and how she came to be director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program.