Theorizing voice: Performativity, politics and listening

Jenny R. Lawy*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The aim of this article is to develop a theory of voice. I claim that it is productive to use 'voice' as a theoretical tool that encompasses a speaker's performance and body gestures. At the same time, this paper argues that it is insufficient to focus on the speaker. While there is recognition that voice(s) are a necessary part of a functioning political, democratic structure, this article reveals that any research on voice needs to also consider the politics involved in listening. Listening not only nuances the study of voice, but also includes those in positions of dominance whose power can be forgotten if discussion focuses exclusively on the political and social struggles that the disempowered undertake in order to make themselves heard. I draw on ethnographic research that was carried out in 2011 and 2012 in Botswana with indigenous Ncoakhoe (also known in literature as 'San') to show how voice was used (performativity) but also how the audience was often restricted. This reduced the political effects of even Ncoakhoe who are educated and employed Christians, i.e. Ncoakhoe who have subscribed to the dominant moral code. My research suggests that a theory of voice is not only about speaking, participating or making yourself heard but also must consider the implications of using a voice that relies upon dominant structures to legitimize it. When Ncoakhoe speak, who listens?

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)192-215
Number of pages24
JournalAnthropological Theory
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2017


  • democracy
  • indigenous peoples
  • minorities
  • performativity
  • politics
  • power
  • recognition
  • voice


Dive into the research topics of 'Theorizing voice: Performativity, politics and listening'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this