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'It's a social experiment: Pranks, political activism, and performing marginality for a politically correct mainstream audience'

Bree Hadley gave this keynote address as part of the Performance of the Real: Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Symposium held between 8th-10th June, 2016.

Listen to Bree Hadley's keynote address

Here is a summary of the lecture

In this paper, I investigate the phenomenon of so-called 'social experiments', where pranksters perform stigmatised identities in public spaces and places – from breastfeeding mothers, to Muslim women wearing burqas, to disabled people using canes, crutches and wheelchairs – to prompt a response from passersby.

Though cast as politicised performances of the real designed to draw attention to the prejudices of the average passerby, the structure of these 'social experiments', frequently focused on candid camera style pranks they film, and upload on social media for all to see, with the hope of going viral and getting a run on morning television, raises performative, political and ethical questions. In this paper, I unpack some of these questions, using examples of social experiments focused on (dis)ability, race, religion, and gender identity.

I examine some of the different effects these social experiments can produce, depending on whether they are performed by actors, pranksters or political activists, and whether they are performed by people who really occupy the stigmatised identity they perform or people who are simply wanting to say something about a fraught social topic.

I ask whether these social experiments, when they go viral online, produce bonding social capital within communities impacted by current social prejudices, bridging social capital between these and broader communities, both, or neither.

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