This is part of a series that draws on ethnographic fieldwork with anime fans. The series creates a framework for exploring the relationship between narrative, performance, and identity. I explore a theory of narrative identity in which individuals incorporate elements from stories into their lives. I document how anime fans use anime-specific narrative resources such as archetypes, icons, and language to shape their personal identity narratives and perform those identities to both anime fans and non-anime fans.

Check out the rest of the series.


Why Study Fans?

“Most people are fans of something,” says Jonathan Gray in the introduction to Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World; from Potterheads, to Trekkies to Country Music Fans and Football Fanatics. “Fandom is beautiful, and [has become] an ever more common mode of cultural consumption.” (2007:1,7) Where fans were once seen as “odd”  or “absurd” in their dedication to a single show or pastime, this fervor has become increasingly accepted and even promoted by enterprise. No longer is a fan someone who has “lost touch with reality,” but simply someone who “really loves that show” in the words of David, an anime fan in his mid-fifties.

Moreover, fandom has become a means of identification, especially for those who may feel marginalized by mainstream society. As the world shrinks through globalization, individuals find themselves with a growing array of identities to choose from. No longer are we simply defined by kinship group, religion, or occupation. We can now identify with social movements (women, gay men, lesbians, ethnic groups, disabled persons, etc.), social circles (networks through online socialization like Facebook), or common interest groups such as motorcyclists, extreme sports, scrap bookers or anime fans (Linger 2005:23).

So, again, why study fans? Why specifically study anime fans?

One answer is simple from an anthropological perspective: anime fandom exists and is important to people. These fans create a culture around anime; a culture with its own rules, taboos, taxonomies, initiations, and language. A second answer is that anime is a fascinating media exchange. The very word anime has crossed from Latin to Anglo-Saxon to Modern English to Japanese and then back to Standard American English (Drout 2010). Anime as an art form is a Japanese interpretation of an originally Western art form: animation. Anime is imported to the States, where it is picked up by individuals, for the most part, with no Asian identity. Few better examples of globalization and transcultural media exchange exist.

Building on the assertions from Linde, Wertsch, and Hyden and leaning on Irving Goffman’s theories of symbolic interactionism (Goffman 2002), we can craft a theory of narrative identity in which individuals incorporate elements from narratives (fictionalized, social, and others) into their personal identity narrative. The individuals then project this identity narrative by way of a performative identity. By using anime fans as an illustration, we can investigate this phenomenon in a specific, real-world context.

All these definitions will be detailed in Chapter Two, but they suffice now to form a central question: How do anime fans use anime to perform their personal identity narratives? Even anthropologists and scholars not interested in anime could find the finding here applicable to other settings. Researchers of narrative studies, media studies, fan studies, identity studies, and cultural exchange may be interested in various elements of the ethnographic findings.

Fan Studies

Francis Hsu (1963) posited that, in societies where clans and castes have become de-emphasized, people seek social identification through a system of clubs. The clubs are groups that become”imagined communities with false borders”(Anderson 2006), and play an integral role in constructing and disseminating cultural norms. Clubs do this chiefly by offering social resources that create “communities of practice” in which individuals use common social-symbolic tools to construct and perform their identities.

So, in our case, anime fandom is a community of practice that provides narrative resources, allows fans a place to test-drive these identities, and provides contexts into the redefinition and projection of personal identity narratives

As we are using anime fans as our example, it is important to discuss the history and important literature of both fan studies and anime studies. Fan studies is not a new field, as fans have always existed. In the early 1980s, scholars became interested in fandom through Michel de Certeau’s discussion of the powerful, the powerless, and media consumption (1988).

Fandom is a common feature of popular culture in industrial societies. It selects from the repertoire of mass-produced and mass-distributed entertainment certain performers, narratives or genres and then takes them into the culture of a self-selected fraction of the people. They are then reworked into an intensely pleasurable, intensely signifying popular culture that is both similar to, yet significantly different from, the culture of more “normal” popular audiences. (Fiske 1992:36)

This first wave of scholarship saw fans as cast aside from the mainstream and looked down upon because of their devotion. It focused on the artifacts of extreme fandom such as conventions and gaming circles. Fandom was to be seen as a beautiful form of otherness and the study fans was dedicated to championing those disadvantaged within society. (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007; Tulloch and Jenkins 1995).

This sort of binary did not do justice to those who loved a show and watched it religiously, but did not engage in any other forms of fan expression like fanfiction (fan-created texts based on more popular texts) and cosplay (costume-play). Meanwhile, the cultural status of fan changed, becoming more accepted and even promoted by corporate America, which wanted a dedicated consumer. This led to a focus on fan texts and a more literary investigation of fandom. The third wave of fandom strives to look at fandom as a more holistic and integrated aspect of life:

Here fandom is no longer only an object of study in and for itself. Instead, through the investigation of fandom as part of the fabric of our everyday lives, [this wave] aims to capture fundamental insights into modern life (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007).

Contemporary fan studies has moved in many directions, mostly following fandom as it expanded to computer mediated, virtual spaces. As the field of interest matured, it became intertwined with a number of disciplines. Literary scholars still study fan produced texts, questions of canon, and textual evolution (Black 2006; Bronwen 2011; Kap 2006; Black 2007; Oviedo 2007). Many sociologists and psychologists investigate fandom in terms of intertextual conglomerations from multiple sources (Henry Jenkins 2007; Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007; Alters 2007). Fandom has even been looked at as therapeutic (Ashby 2010; Harris and Alexander 1998). Of course, business and marketing has a keen interest in fandom as consumption (Fiske 1992; Elliott and Wattanasuwan 1998).

While anthropologists have been slow to do ethnographic fieldwork in fandom, a number of researchers are looking at fandom on anthropological ways, specifically in fan interaction. Longhurst (2007:137) “seek[s] to connect contemporary cultural theory to the mundane practices of everyday life, and concludes that there is evidence for the analytic power of the simple, mass, diffused characterizations, among the audience continuum.” Roberta Pearson looks at self-identification in fandom, classifications, taxonomies, and stigma attached to certain types of fans (2007)

Studies in anime texts are proliferous. Not only are there textual studies on the anime itself (Newitz 1995; Drazen 2003) and media studies on theme and craft (Kono 2011; Gustines 2007), but many scholars have looked at anime fandom in particular. Madeline Ashby’s (2010) cyborg theory to explore a fan’s online identity in contrast to the fan’s offline identity. Others look at how different regions produce different fandom experiences and attitudes about fans (Frasier 2007; Manion 2005).

It is also important at this point to clarify the notion of subculture versus popular culture versus counterculture and so on. These terms have been traditionally fuzzy. Many anthropologists prefer the term “popular culture” when describing groups such as the anime fans I interacted with because that does not draw the same sort of “hard line” around a group. This is important to recognize: anime fandom is not isolated or separated from other social circles. One is not a fan here, but not a fan there. In this way, popular culture may be more appropriate. However, since the prevailing term in fan studies as well as among anime fans is “subculture,” subculture will be used here. In any sense, the discussion on “communities of practice” is most helpful when speaking of a social context for the analysis of narrative identity.

Now that we have grounding in our subject group, let’s turn to the analytical tools we will use to explore how fans construct and perform personal identity narratives.

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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