Autobiographical reasoning in long-term fandom

C. Lee Harrington

Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, United States

Denise D. Bielby

University of California, Santa Barbara, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—We explore the social psychological processes through which fan-based experiences become situated in fans' larger life narratives. Drawing on original survey data with long-term U.S. soap opera fans, we examine how the psychological mechanism of autobiographical reasoning functions in fans' construction of self-narratives over time. The case study presented here is a subset of a larger investigation into the age-related structure of fans' activities, identities, and interpretive capacities. Situated at the intersections of gerontological (life span/life course) theory and contemporary fan studies, our project mines relatively uninvestigated theoretical terrain. We conclude with a brief discussion of implications for future fan studies.

[0.2] Keywords—Age; Aging; Erik Erikson; Life course; Long-term fans; Soap opera

Harrington, C. Lee, and Denise D. Bielby. 2010. Autobiographical reasoning in long-term fandom. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Scholarship on media fans includes a number of richly textured analyses of long-term, lifelong, or "enduring" fans, ranging from Cavicchi's (1998) study of Bruce Springsteen fans, to Kuhn's (2002) investigation into 1930s-era cinemagoers, to Brooker's (2002) examination of Star Wars enthusiasts, to Sandvoss's (2003) research on football supporters. Of more recent scholarly interest are the meaning and experiences of fandom among older adults—for example, Bennett's (2006) analysis of the changing meanings of punk rock among older fans, Vroomen's (2004) work with adult Kate Bush fans, and Stevenson's (2009) research on aging David Bowie fans. As we argue elsewhere (Harrington and Bielby forthcoming), while this nascent body of work reflects growing awareness of the aging global population and the varied impact of aging on media and fan-based experiences, most of it treats age and aging a-theoretically, thus ignoring a vast body of scholarship located elsewhere in the academy (gerontology, sociology, psychology, and human development) that examines how lives unfold across time. Our goal in the larger project is to render explicit what is typically treated implicitly in fan studies by drawing directly on life course perspectives to inform our understanding of long-term and later life fandom. By demonstrating that fan identities, practices, and interpretive capacities have more age-related structure than has previously been addressed, we suggest concrete ways that fan studies can more fully account for fandom over time (Harrington and Bielby forthcoming; see also Stever forthcoming). Here, we focus on one specific psychological mechanism—autobiographical reasoning—and explore its role in long-term fans' construction of self-narratives.

2. Narrative, self-development, and autobiographical reasoning

[2.1] Several key points that are well established in the gerontological and social psychological literatures frame our use of the scholarly literature on the life course. First, the way individual lives unfold is shaped by both internal psychological and external social processes. In general, life course scholars are interested in the social and historical changes that impact a particular generation at a particular point in time and come to "govern the manner in which members of that generation make sense of a presently remembered past, experienced present, and anticipated future" (Cohler and Hostetler 2003, 557). Second, socialization does not end in childhood but is instead a lifelong process. Indeed, the very process of getting old "poses challenges, and perhaps threats, to the self" (George 1998, 139). Third, there is a cumulative nature of developmental achievements that promote continuity in the self over time (McLeod and Almazan 2003, 395). The self changes as we age, of course, but there is personality coherence from infancy to adulthood (Caspi 2000). As Kuhn articulates in her study of cinemagoers, "it sometimes seems as if, in the process of narrating [memories of fan experiences], informants are accessing the 'child's voice' within themselves" (2002, 66–67). Finally, we are not approaching fan narratives as factual accounts of past experiences or interpretations; rather, the past is "mediated, indeed produced, in the activity of remembering" (2002, 9). McAdams et al. state: "A person's life story is an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that selectively reconstructs the past and anticipates the future in such a way as to provide a life with an overall sense of coherence and purpose" (2006, 1372).

[2.2] Our case analysis focuses on the becoming-a-fan narratives replete within fan studies—fans' accounts of encountering media texts that resonate so powerfully that they transform one's identity, daily activities, and life trajectories. As Cavicchi explains, "becoming a fan is, for most fans, a milestone in their lives in which 'everything changed'; they tend to think of themselves in terms of being a fan and not being a fan" (1998, 153). Our case study sheds light on the role that becoming-a-fan narratives play in the construction of psychological continuity across the lifespan. More specifically, we argue that the mechanism of autobiographical reasoning helps us appreciate how the transformational event of entering fandom becomes situated in individual life histories. As such, we are interested in the developmental implications of these transformations in adulthood.

[2.3] While the potential influence of any interruption to the life course (note 1) depends on "how individuals interpret and respond to them, as well as on the constraints that limit their responses" (McLeod and Almazan 2003, 395), developmental and personality psychologists are increasingly interested in how those transitions and turning points are "storied" within the larger autobiographical context. As part of the narrative turn taking place throughout the academy, psychologists have begun empirically researching the connections between narrative and self-development. Among developmental psychologists, for instance, storytelling is proposed to be "at the heart of both stability and change in the self" (McLean et al. 2007, 262), with the life story defined as a "selective set of autobiographical experiences that, together with interpretations of those events, explain how a person came to be who he or she is and projects a sense of purpose and meaning into the future" (Pasupathi and Mansour 2006, 798).

[2.4] Psychological theories of narrative and memory have been effectively employed in prior fan studies, most notably by Kuhn (2002), who explores 1930s filmgoers' memory discourse and memory content in the larger production of cultural memory. However, even as Kuhn attends to the recollection of past life as embedded in memory, her analysis does not directly engage life course implications of changing self-narratives in ways that align her insights with their broader significance to questions of human development. Psychologists have identified autobiographical reasoning as a specific cognitive strategy that people employ to create a sense of unity in their lives by integrating life experiences or events with changing self-perceptions as they age. While the theoretical basis of autobiographical reasoning was explored in Johnson's (1993) work bridging cognitive psychology and philosophy, the term itself was first articulated in developmental psychology by Habermas and Bluck (2000). Autobiographical reasoning can be described as "the dynamic process of thinking about the past to make links to the self" (McLean et al. 2007, 263). It is one of the mechanisms that generate a sense of continuity from childhood through adulthood. The developmental capability for autobiographical reasoning emerges in childhood and is aided by parents and other parental or mentoring figures. While adolescence and early adulthood are "a privileged developmental period for the encoding of autobiographical memories" (Pasupathi and Hoyt 2009, 558), autobiographical reasoning as a process is a lifelong activity that amplifies with age. In other words, there are changes over time in the "likelihood of autobiographical reasoning across young adulthood into middle age" (Pasupathi and Mansour 2006, 804) that can inform understanding of becoming-a-fan narratives. Consistent with a life course perspective, the life story or narrative identity that emerges through autobiographical reasoning reveals continuity over time while also manifesting change (McAdams et al. 2006, 1371).

[2.5] We are particularly interested in how autobiographical reasoning may be attuned to different life stages, and how those in turn may be related to understanding a fan's developmental trajectory. In the 1950s, psychiatrist Erik Erikson (1959) proposed a now well-known model of psychosocial development over the life course, and while we share critics' concerns about subscribing to a sequential model of human development, we believe the matter of purposefulness that underlies his model is useful within fan studies. Erikson proposed eight phases of life, which begin at birth and end at death, and through which a healthy human being matures. Each phase presents a distinct conflict or challenge to the individual, the successful negotiation of which represents a turning point for development—that is, an opportunity for personal growth or failure. We focus here on the three phases of adulthood: the developmental challenge of young adulthood (forge intimate bonds or risk isolation), the striving of middle adulthood (contribute to the social betterment through transmission of core values or culture or risk stagnation), and the accomplishment of the final life phase (to reconcile oneself with one's life accomplishments and thus achieve wisdom or die with bitterness and regret).

3. Data and method

[3.1] Our evidence is drawn from a study of long-term U.S. soap opera actors and viewers (Harrington and Brothers 2010; Harrington and Brothers forthcoming) and includes original open-ended survey data from 34 fans who have been watching the same soap for at least 20 years. Participants' ages ranged from 24 to 73 with a median age of 54. Most report their race as white (88 percent) and their gender as female (76 percent), which is reflective of the larger U.S. soap opera audience. We performed textual analysis on the data using a common social science approach: grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Viewers are not identified by name below as a result of confidentiality agreements; for additional information on data collection/analysis procedures and the institutional review board protocol, see Harrington and Brothers (2010).

[3.2] We believe the developmental issues emergent in our data suggest important new research trajectories for fan scholars. We note, however, that because we are analyzing our data in a theoretical context for which it was not originally collected, we must acknowledge how the design of the primary study may affect the generalizability of our findings. First, had we collected data on aging actors/viewers with the framework of autobiographical reasoning firmly in mind, we would have structured the interview to engage relevant issues more directly. For example, we would have systematically explored the ramifications of fans' interactions with other (aging) fans as part of the developmental process, along with any generational differences in that process. While our mid-1990s ethnography of soap opera fandom (Harrington and Bielby 1995) suggested that soap fans are less likely to construct large-scale communities compared to other fandoms, that claim is no longer true today. As such, fans' interactions with one another are no doubt important to the adult developmental process (especially the role of mentoring; see below). A second limitation is the small sample size of the primary study. In that study (Harrington and Brothers 2010; Harrington and Brothers forthcoming), the central focus was on aging soap actors, and viewer data was gathered for illustrative purposes. However, our considerable knowledge of fans and their practices more generally suggests that the findings we report here capture the experiences of long-term fans (with 20-plus years of viewing experiences) and perhaps of long-term fans of other media texts—in other words, particular subsets of broader fandoms. Third, the method of data gathering for the primary study, which relied upon referrals by fans to others in their social networks, may over- or underrepresent certain segments of the larger soap audience (CBS soap viewers, for example). On the basis of our extensive knowledge of the structure and organization of soap fandom, however, there is nothing to suggest that this approach systematically biased our sample or our findings.

[3.3] Soap opera is an interesting genre through which to explore developmental issues, given the possibility of a long history of soap storytelling intimately intertwined with a long viewer history of watching soaps. The contemporary network soaps have been airing for decades—Guiding Light, for example, broadcast for more than 70 years on radio and television before its cancellation by CBS in September 2009. Allen (2004) explains the diachronic relationship between soap narratives and viewers as follows: "Soap opera narratives are built around 'historical' characters, in the sense that those characters themselves have both personal histories and memories of a social past—both of which are shared with and relied upon by viewers." U.S. soaps are delivered 5 days a week, 52 weeks per year (130 to 260 hours of original programming), with no broadcast repeats. As such, the histories and memories of soap characters, communities, and viewers unfold in a comparable (daily) temporal framework, arguably situating soap viewers at the far end of a continuum in terms of the complexity of adult development and long-term fandom. Our case analysis below explores two related points: first, autobiographical reasoning and becoming-a-fan self narratives, and second, the developmental implications of fandom in adulthood.

4. Autobiographical reasoning and self-narratives of soap fandom

[4.1] In the context of U.S. soap operas, the ideal industry model for initiating new viewers/fans is through familial ties that collaborate in exposure to a soap: mothers introduce their daughters (and sons) to soaps, who then introduce their own daughters and sons, and so on. In the context of this facilitation, there is a strong potential in this particular genre for fictional soap narratives and characters to become bound together (through cross-generational viewing) with larger familial narratives. Consider the following quotations from longtime viewers when asked how they first started watching soaps:

[4.2] When I was in high school, [The Young and the Restless] coincided with the time that Dad and I would come home, and often mom would iron in front of the TV. It brought the family together. (42-year-old man)

[4.3] Soaps accompanied my real life as a stay at home mother, chronicled my years as a working adult, kept me company when I was alone, gave me something to bond with my mother, sisters, daughters, and daughter-in-laws over…I heard my oldest son, who is a seven-year veteran of a local police force, say that when he is home sick he plays the ABC soaps in the background because it makes him feel safe, secure, and loved: just like when he was a child. (50-year-old woman)

[4.4] Becoming-a-fan narratives also point to the crucial role of others in integrating fan-based experiences into larger autobiographical life narratives and trajectories. Explains one viewer:

[4.5] I was in high school and had a week home due to the flu…The cool thing was that I didn't know at the time it was a soap my mom watched before she went back to work. It was a real blessing because at the high school age (in the 70s) I had a lot of questions about soaps. And my mom could answer. It helped at a time when a lot of mothers/daughters drift apart. We were able to discuss plots, characters and how we would handle the on-screen situation…My mother was great at listening to me and helping me create boundaries…Without my mother's guidance, I don't think watching soaps would have been healthy. (40-plus-year-old woman)

[4.6] Similar to Kuhn's (2002) analyses of the meaning of adolescent cinemagoing in adulthood, this adult soap fan's initiation into the world of soaps is remembered as central to her explorations as a teenager into questions surrounding adult relationships, activities, and moralities. Significantly, however, this fan's memory includes her mother as a central figure in her negotiation into adulthood as mediated through soap opera. Her mother's ability to facilitate those adolescent explorations at a time of potentially vulnerable mother-daughter relationships is rooted, in this fan's evolving self-narrative, in her mother's attachment to and knowledge of soaps, and her willingness to provide moral guidance through shared textual interpretation with her daughter. Another female fan was drawn to soaps for the opposite reason: as a form of rebellion against parental expectations and constraints:

[4.7] In my earlier teen years…I would engage in ridiculous self-improvement schemes, such as memorizing dictionaries. By the time I was 15 I was becoming more rebellious and decided to watch soap operas as a way to horrify my mother who was shocked and humiliated that "coming from such a cultured home," I would reduce myself to such disgraceful behavior. (59-year-old female fan)

[4.8] This fan's process of autobiographical reasoning also emphasizes the role of her mother in her entrée into soap watching but as a way to distance herself from her mother and her preferred cultural tastes. While the self-narrative/soap-narrative/family-narrative connections are similar for this fan to the fan quoted earlier, the outcome is different (maternal distance rather than closeness). Finally, watching soaps with her grandmother offered the fan quoted below a unique opportunity to step outside of grandmother-granddaughter roles and come to know her grandmother more fully:

[4.9] "Hashing over" the daily episodes afforded me the opportunity to learn how my grandmother felt and thought about real life on a level I would never have reached as her grandchild, because no matter how old you get, you are still a grand "child" who never quite reaches adulthood, even though you may be married with several children. (50-plus-year-old female fan)

[4.10] Here, shared soap viewing allowed familial relationships to be transcended or discarded, thus providing more honest insight into one another's preferences, values, and interpretations. For all of the fans quoted above, the presence of familial others is central to their becoming-a-fan narratives.

[4.11] For this next group of long-term soap fans, memories of watching soaps with family members come to be experienced, over time, as memories of those family members:

[4.12] I enjoy it because it reminds me of my mom and my aunts and our discussions of the stories in years past. (60-year-old woman)

[4.13] My mother passed away in 1999 at age 76 and whenever something happens on General Hospital that I know would have outraged her, made her laugh or cry, I connect with her again briefly on an emotional level. (50-year-old woman)

[4.14] My mother and grandmother were avid watchers of [two different soaps]. I began watching with them as a family afternoon event…The soap operas bonded the three of us and gave us "female time" together before my father arrived home from work. It now is a cherished memory of my mother and grandmother…Every day at 3 p.m. my mom and grandmother are "with me" in a certain way. For that, I am forever grateful to Irna Phillips for having created Guiding Light 70 years ago. (59-year-old woman)

[4.15] In sum, for these fans, whose initiation into soaps was guided and facilitated by family members and whose memories of learning about "real life" and adulthood are (in part) memories of collective interpretation of fictional characters and narratives, "soap stories" are (re)positioned through self-narratives as "family stories" or shared family memories that are integrated into ever-evolving stories of the self. As one fan explains, her present-day watching of Guiding Light is a "connection to my own family's past" (note 2), constructing coherence between the person she is now (in her current family dynamics) to the person she once was (and memories of former family dynamics). As noted earlier, autobiographical reasoning is one strategy by which people revisit specific life events (and their own changing interpretations of those events; see below) to create a sense of unity, to help explain how they came to be who they are (Pasupathi and Mansour 2006, 798). As such, for these fans, text, self, and family are inextricably bound together in the meaning-making process of growing up and growing old. Soap fans, scholars, and critics routinely refer to soaps as throughlines in viewers' lives—autobiographical reasoning is the precise cognitive strategy that enables this. Not all fandoms rely on a cross-generational familial introduction process, and the U.S. soap industry is less able to rely on this process than ever before in its history (De Kosnik et al. forthcoming). However, these fans' evolving self-narratives suggest ways that autobiographical reasoning and the formation and revising of life stories are inherently collaborative processes.

5. Developmental implications of fandom in adulthood

[5.1] We noted earlier the developmental challenges that Erikson (1959) suggests confront us in each phase of adulthood. The brief analysis above points, in particular, to the generativity versus stagnation challenge of midadulthood, given soap fans' emphasis on their mentored entrée into the world of soap fandom. While our data allow direct insight only into the mentee's experience of being mentored by older family members—the mentors' intentions and experiences are represented indirectly—research finds that both mentors and mentees are aided developmentally through this process (McLean et al. 2007, 262). Most of the soap fans we spoke with are in midadulthood, which perhaps explains the salience of mentoring in their becoming-a-fan narratives. A number of prior fan studies have explored the mentorship/apprenticeship duties of experienced media fans (Baym 2000; Bennett 2006; Brooker 2002; Harrington and Bielby 1995), and we emphasize here the potential developmental implications of those activities (see also Stever forthcoming).

[5.2] Soap fans' narratives also illuminate the challenges of both early adulthood (intimacy versus isolation) and late adulthood (integrity versus despair). Let us return to the observation that autobiographical reasoning is modified over time. In a study comparing younger (late adolescence to early adulthood) and older (65 and over) persons, the older group had more narrative coherence to their reasoning and had more situated stories representing stability, while the younger group had more stories representing change (McLean 2008). This finding might help fan scholars account for the "I used to, now I…" dimension (or the past/present register; see Kuhn 2002, 10) of fans' changing relationships with media texts as they age. Consider the following quotations:

[5.3] I was so involved with the stories and the characters. The characters became my best friends. It didn't matter who they were or what story they were involved in…I scheduled my life around these characters…they were my best friends. I was going through a rough time in my life at that time, and these characters got me through them. (47-year-old woman)

[5.4] When I was young I felt a certain kinship to many of the characters [on As the World Turns]. The teens, close to my age (Penny and Ellen), drew me in. Later, Lisa and I were pregnant at the same time, both had boys, and both named them Tom (mine after his father, however). I had a real love/hate relationship with most of the characters…[However], I am not the easily entertained, naïve, willing to watch anything…person I was back then. I am older and wiser and less willing to suspend disbelief. Unlike years gone by, I feel very little sympathy, or empathy, for the characters. (50-plus-year-old woman)

[5.5] These quotes indicate a distancing over time of one's emotional self from the fictional characters and communities depicted on-screen, a memory echoed by most of the adult soap fans in our study:

[5.6] I am happy to say I have matured a lot. Back in the day, I would think about [the characters] constantly. (40-plus-year-old woman)

[5.7] I am no longer near as wrapped up in the characters…At one time, whether it was youth or innocence; I did feel a very real connection to these characters as if they might be friends, adversaries. (70-year-old fan)

[5.8] In part, these sentiments might speak to viewer/fan fatigue, which most other fandoms do not have the luxury to experience. These viewers each have at least 20 years of history invested in their favorite soap opera, representing at least 5,200 hours of original programming potentially viewed (not to mention engagement in other fan practices). No soap viewers we spoke with reported becoming more engaged in soap characters as their own lives and viewing histories unfolded, and many said they continue to watch their shows because they've "always" watched (giving new meaning to the sheer "endurance" implied in Kuhn's [2002] concept of enduring fandom). Soap fans' changing emotional investment is obviously worrisome from an industry perspective—indeed, some fans attribute their disengagement to declining storytelling quality—but from a developmental perspective, it might indicate crucial self-transformation.

[5.9] For example, media fans' emotional attachments to cultural texts (whether fictionalized characters and communities or "real" celebrities or sport teams) have been subject to a wide range of analytic frameworks, from parasociality to object relations theory to theories of religion to hegemony theory. While we do not wish to summarize or engage these different frameworks directly, we simply point out here that there might be important developmental implications to these relationships that are overlooked by fan scholars. While adolescents' emotional attachments to media texts might speak to their explorations into adult worlds of romantic and sexual relationships and identities (as numerous studies of adolescent fandom suggest), in the context of young adulthood these attachments might reflect the intimacy versus isolation challenge proposed by Erikson (1959). The transition from adolescence to adulthood and adulthood itself—as informed by theory—has been underexplored in fan studies (Harrington and Bielby forthcoming; Stever forthcoming).

[5.10] Moreover, consider again the second part of the quote above—"I am not the easily entertained, naïve, willing to watch anything person I was back then. I am older and wiser"—from a fan who gives her age as 50 plus. A key component of successful negotiation of the developmental challenge of late adulthood (integrity versus despair) is the acquisition of what Tornstam (1997) terms gerotranscendence: our gradual acquisition in later life of a "more cosmic and transcendent [worldview], normally accompanied by a contemplative dimension" (143). In the context of self-development, acquisition of gerotranscendence suggests both greater coherence and stability to processes of autobiography (McLean 2008), and a gradually clarified (or clarifying) sense of self. Explains another soap fan:

[5.11] When I was younger, I saw things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Now that I'm older, I tend to appreciate complexity of character over whether the character is "good" or "bad"…Complexity of character and motivation is more interesting to me [now]. I like to think that means I am a more complex person who is willing to see shades of grey rather than strict black and white. I doubt I would be able to articulate this if I hadn't watched soaps most of my life.

[5.12] While this female fan identifies her age as "late 30s," her quote suggests an early achievement of gerotranscendence through years of soap viewing. Much as long-term Bowie fans converted him into a "cultural resource which can be reinterpreted in the context of their changing life situations" (Stevenson 2009, 85), lifelong Springsteen fans used music "to map out where their current life course might take them and whether they wanted that future" (Cavicchi 1998, 110), and aging punk fans traded the visual aesthetics of punk for a "more subtly articulated" understanding of punk as ideology (Bennett 2006, 225), soap fans illuminate through autobiographical reasoning how the collaborative process of becoming and being a fan transforms the self, and provides unexpected resources for negotiating life's developmental challenges (Harrington and Bielby forthcoming; Harrington and Brothers 2010; Stever forthcoming).

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Our analysis contributes both to the growing literature on long-term fans and the more nascent literature on fandom in later life. Both literatures are remiss, we argue, in their failure to incorporate scholarship from psychology, gerontology, and human development that sheds light on how lives unfold across time (we admit that our own prior fan studies have been negligent in this regard). Given a rapidly aging global population and thus rapidly aging media audiences, we urge fan studies colleagues to engage directly with scholarship that articulates the scope and impact of these demographic transitions. Our larger project (Harrington and Bielby forthcoming) brings these literatures together to help fan scholars understand the extent to which fan-based activities and experiences are structured by age.

[6.2] Here, we have taken a more microlevel approach to exploring the specific mechanisms through which becoming-a-fan narratives are positioned within (and come to transform) larger life trajectories, and the developmental implications of these processes for adult fans. As our analysis suggests, there are at least three related reasons why media texts are important to consider from a developmental perspective: (1) early exposure to media texts shapes the legitimacy of such exposure (crucial with highly stigmatized texts such as daytime soaps); (2) this legitimized exposure, in turn, renders the fictional narrative a normatively appropriate developmental resource to call upon; and (3) fictional narratives such as soap operas offer powerful conceptions of emotional/experiential authenticity by which fans come to measure, appraise, or otherwise make sense of their own developmental and/or maturational processes. By serving as a throughline to fans' lives, soap operas offer a crucial sense of anchoring or mooring in an increasingly complex world (Harrington and Bielby forthcoming).

[6.3] The narrative turn taking place throughout the academy includes new research in psychology and gerontology that focuses on the construction of self-narratives (self-as-text) and their evolution across time. Our analysis here points to the potential fruitfulness of exploring unfolding media narratives and unfolding self-narratives in tandem and across time—and in the context of age, aging, and life course progression. This is an important next step within fan studies.

7. Notes

1. Scholars agree that stability in the life course can be interrupted by physiological changes (e.g., menopause), age-graded life transitions (e.g., graduating from college), or turning points "in which a person has undergone a major transformation in views about the self, commitments to important relationships, or involvement in significant life roles" (Wetherington et al. 1997, 216). We consider becoming a fan to be one such turning point.

2. Data collection occurred before the cancellation of Guiding Light in fall 2009.

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