I became a fan scholar by accident.
I’ve known since I was fifteen years old that I wanted a doctorate in the social sciences, but I had always intended to get a PhD in anthropology, specializing in mythology or ritual with perhaps a complimentary focus on Indian culture. Clearly something changed, since I'm now writing a sociology dissertation about fandom and virtual community, but that goal lasted all the way through my undergraduate degree. My very first dissertation was about bharata natyam, a form of ritual dance practiced in South India. I spent two months doing ethnographic research in Tamil Nadu, learning the basics of the dance style and interviewing dancers.
I didn’t come to fan studies in the traditional way, either. Most fan scholars start out as fans who realize they want to dedicate their academic careers to studying the social or literary dimensions of fandom, or to defending their community from the assumptions of both popular culture and mainstream academia. I started out as an academic who had friends in fandom but no personal attachment to the community.
It was fan meta discourse that first captured my interest in the field. ‘Meta’, for those who need a definition, is a label that fans apply to conversations or texts involving a certain sort of analysis – usually either the literary analysis of particular media or the sociological analysis of fan society itself. I had alway been intrigued by the amount of time my fannish friends could spend on meta analysis, and also by the things they had to say about fandom – how different the picture they painted was from the stereotypes about fans I encountered elsewhere. I was also impressed by the depth and intelligence of their observations; they were certainly debating on a level equivalent to that of my undergraduate anthropology classes. I began seeking out meta texts on my own, and I was surprised and delighted to discover that meta analysis was a longstanding tradition in fandom – indeed, the first fanzines developed to facilitate early meta conversations, and it was in ’zines that the practices that comprise modern fandom were first developed or standardized – including the ones that surround writing and discussing fanfiction. (More on that in later posts).
It was the year of the bharata natyam dissertation that my interest in meta analysis and my academic career collided. In addition to the practical research and the library research relevant to your topic, writing a social sciences thesis involves a lot of reading about how academic knowledge is produced, or how to write a dissertation – basically, how to take your data and turn it into an essay or a thesis rather than an extended description of what your observations, or a table of your survey results. And I started to think: what was the difference between my observations and analyses, as an academic, and fans’ observations and analyses of their own community? If I tried to analyze and draw conclusions about fandom based on fan observations rather than my own, would the result be any different? How?
Academics call the difference between those two different types of knowledge
emic and etic. (Apologies for the wikipedia link. For anyone with an interest and access to academic databases, I recommend Jingfeng 2011 and also Headland, Pike, and Harris 1990, as the former two pioneered the emic-etic concept). Emic refers to the ways that members of a community perceive and understand their actions and their society – so, how a fan would describe, explain, and interpret fan activities and society. Etic refers to the anthropologist’s observations and analyses. The assumption is often that members of a group are too invested in their community to judge impartially, or that they take for granted everyday practices that an outsider might realize are significant.
However, one of the major flaws of this dichotomy is that while a scholar can easily describe the etic perspective – it is her own interpretation, after all – she is also responsible for the emic point of view. Since she is writing about a community her readers will never meet, the only way she can convey their perspective is by explaining it. Even quoting her informants verbatim is not as useful as it might seem; first, because such quotes are entextualized, which means they are removed from their original social context (see Silverstein & Urban 1996, Silverstein 1998, Sherzer 1987), and second, because emic explanations are necessarily from an emic point of view – which often means that they require the anthropologist to interpret them for an audience that is not an expert in the relevant culture. Finally, it is the anthropologist’s job to decide which aspects of the emic perspective are important or relevant – and, while anthropologists are trained to do this, there is still an inherent margin of failure or misunderstanding involved in any such attempt.
Fan meta texts, however, are written by people who come from the same cultural background as most readers and therefore require little to no expert interpretation. Furthermore, they can be quoted without entextualization; most fan interactions take place in text already and, if the researcher obtains permission, it is possible to link readers to the original text, which can provide some (though not all) of the social context missing from conventional transcripts. And finally, it is the nature of meta discourse for fans to identify and defend which aspects of a conversation they, as participants, think are important – which doesn’t necessarily make it easier for the researcher to identify which themes are most significant, but does certainly alter that job in interesting ways.
Oops. That was supposed to be a short introduction... >_>
The TL;DR version is this: I ended up in fan studies for two reasons. First, because my initial status as an outsider meant that I had an unusual perspective to bring to the discipline. And second, because I was interested in the ways that fan meta discourse, or self-analysis, could contribute to the academic understanding of how we do research, how we relate to our informants, and how we use their opinions and perspectives in our work.