Research Communications

Sociologist Heather Dumas explores the Renaissance festival subculture 

By Karen Fatula

When Heather Dumas started attending Renaissance festivals 10 years ago, she became fascinated by this alternative world of knights, pirates, princesses, and jesters. Not only do "rennies" dress in period clothing and participate in activities such as jousting and pub sing-alongs, but they might also take on personas quite different from their everyday lives.

Dumas, a student of sociology, decided to embark on an ethnographic study of identity, role play, and social interactions in these "shared fantasy environments." Although her project focuses on Renaissance festivals-events held across the United States that offer recreations of the 15th and 16th centuries for educational and entertainment purposes-she notes that her work also is applicable to other social historical reenactments and online gaming.

Heather Dumas (Photo credit: Rob Hardin)

She's looking at the roles people choose play at the festivals, which can range from royalty and entertainers to blacksmiths and pirates. Her work fits into a larger body of sociology research that examines how people retreat into subcultures to pursue different identities.

"Fantasy play is an environment where adults can try out new things, test who they are and who they could be, and possibly integrate some positive aspects of play into their mainstream identities," she says.

To access the complex social world of Renaissance festivals, Dumas found that she needed to participate, often by wearing pirate garb.

"If I had walked in with a notebook and voice recorder wearing plain clothes and just started talking with these people, I would not have gotten the depth of information and the detail and insight that putting on a Renaissance pirate hat got me," she says.

Dumas, who is keeping a blog about her experiences attending these historical fairs, offers one firsthand account of how social roles can change. She once wore a different costume that signified that she was part of the nobility, and was fascinated by how the other festival participants treated her with much more deference and formality than if she had been wearing her pirate gear.

For the project, which has been supported by the Shelly Fund for student research in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and a campaign, Dumas traveled to several festivals around the country, conducting in-depth interviews with participants. For some, participating in Renaissance fairs is a fun hobby, she's found, while others make a living working the circuit and finding employment in related activities.

Dumas is a master's student in sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences; her advisor is Christine Mattley.

This story appears in the special graduate student edition of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine, published in spring 2013.