Negotiating acafandom as a first-time researcher

S. Eliza Ader

Independent Researcher

[0.1] Abstract—This reflection on positionality draws on experiences from undertaking an undergraduate writing research project involving a series of email/chat server interviews with fan fiction authors active on Archive of Our Own. The identity of the acafan is a negotiated spectrum that relates to positionality and knowledge production.

[0.2] Keywords—AO3; Archive of Our Own; Interviews; Knowledge production; Positionality; Power relations; Research methods

Ader, S. Eliza. 2020. "Negotiating Acafandom as a First-Time Researcher." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Introduction

[1.1] It is February 2018. I am in a second-year geography class in the campus theater, watching my lecturer use his daughter's whale-shark toy and a box to demonstrate how we need to think about risk during our undergraduate dissertation projects. Later, he goes on to talk about positionality. From the seriousness with which he addresses these topics, I know that they are important; however, at this point, everything feels abstract—PowerPoint slides and concepts and people dozing off around me. It was not until later, when I was researching and writing the dissertation, or now, with it receding into the blur that is the end of my undergraduate degree, that risk, positionality, and the ethics of research actually began to mean concrete things to me. In light of that, this essay is going to take one of those concepts—positionality—and briefly explore how it, along with the concurrent processes of identity creation and knowledge production, could be conceptualized differently in fan studies due to the hybrid nature of the acafan researcher.

[1.2] To begin: positionality is the notion of how personal views and position in space-time can affect how a person views the world (Sánchez 2010). One way it came about is through the feminist movement in geography in the 1980s and 1990s as "a means of avoiding the false neutrality and universality of so much academic knowledge," (Rose 1997, 306), thus challenging the supremacy of objectivist knowledge and recognizing that in the search for universality, one does violence by subduing other knowledges that may not fit into the narrative one is attempting to build. If, instead, one accepts that all knowledge is a product of positions of actors and objects in the world, and therefore wholly subjective, one can work to build an egalitarian and empowering set of knowledges that give space for a diverse array of voices, acknowledging the complexity of the social worlds that surround us (Dwyer and Limb 2001). It is something that has been worked over a lot in the last three decades, but considering the fact that every project is different, it is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ideas such as positionality. Gillian Rose (1997) argues that having one model for such concepts is actually impossible, as positionality and reflexivity (the actual process of examining one's subjectivity) work in a self-constructing manner, building the self up differently with each project undertaken. This idea of the self-as-palimpsest, scraped over and clean but with remnants of past selves half-visible below the surface, is both beautiful and tricky. How do we engage with those past selves in new research projects? How do we even know whether the self we are constructing in the present is one that is useful to the research?

2. Dispatches from an undergraduate field diary

[2.1] Tonight I've started to reach out to some of the more famous authors in the MCU fandom on AO3. This has me nervous, mostly due to power relations I think. These guys are the big guns, the Victor Hugos and Madeline Millers and Toni Morrisons of the fanfiction world. I'm a little fish, [my internet pseudonym] is a perfectly un-extraordinary writer, buried in the rockfall of content that gets created and shaken loose into the archive every single day. (05/08/18)

[2.2] Mainly, I think my biases in this internet research could be to do with grammar, as I am communicating textually with these people; I am more likely to think favorably of people who respond with good grammar, possibly because of ease. Good grammar says a lot about education, class, and disability, actually, if you read into it more—the more you read and the more educated you are, the better your grammar will be, as is the case if you don't suffer from a learning disorder such as dyslexia. (11/08/18)

[2.3] Anyway. I'm currently bringing up a few theorists in interviews, and it's an interesting moment of power relations because it really highlights my position as a researcher who has read and thought about these texts. I'm not even sure if I should be doing it, you know. (11/09/18)

[2.4] The three quotes above are all excerpts from the field diary I kept while I was carrying out my primary research—interviews, in this case. All three were written in response to my growing awareness of my positionality. The first outlines how I felt approaching famous fan fiction authors, which was a nerve-racking experience, considering just how much I admired them as a fan and fellow author myself—even the vaunted position of academic could not ease the nerves, the fear that they would find a request for an interview to be weird or encroaching in some way. The second was a response to the exercise outlined in Hesse-Biber's (2006) paper, which provides prompts to start one off thinking about one's positionality. All of her considerations were to do with face-to-face interviews, whereas mine were digital—over email or Google Hangouts. I had not come across much literature considering the differences in positionality over this kind of space—dispersed and disconnected from the legal identities of my participants—with one notable exception being Anna de Jong's (2015) paper on Facebook as a space for storytelling. Grammar was the only thing I could think of that would potentially trigger any unconscious bias I might have, considering the fact that for all fan fiction's boundary-pushing in content, participants' opinions on form tend to adhere to more generally acceptable cultural notions of what constitutes good writing (Fathallah 2017; my own 2018 research). The final quote is a response to some of my authors' reactions when I brought up theorists like Barthes and Foucault as provocations, so to speak. It felt important to consider positionality again here, because these authors and concepts had the potential to make my interviewees uncomfortable, especially as many of my theorists are Dead White Men™, and fan fiction is very much a haven for queer and female cultural producers (de Kosnik 2016; Minkel 2014).

[2.5] What I took away from all of the above is this idea that positionality is not just a lumpen thing, a box to tick before you carry merrily on your way. It is a social relation; a flexing exchange that is constantly, minutely, being (re)constituted as the interview carries on. It is different with each interviewee and each interview takes a different form, a different pace. With this in mind, I am going to continue this paper with a discussion on positionality as a social relation and how it relates to acafandom, proposing that both work as kinds of spectrum, and that this spectrum in turn has an impact on the negotiation of knowledge production.

3. Positionality as spectrum

[3.1] The idea of identity as something performative, (re)produced, rather than something absolute and fixed has been around for some time, evolving from work like Judith Butler's (1990) Gender Trouble and becoming a taken-for-granted process in the world where identity categories become about interactions rather than objective absolutes (Dixon and Jones 2006). Theory such as this has also become standard in discussions of acafandom, the hybrid identity of an academic researcher who is also a participant of the fan communities they study (TWC Editor 2008). Acafan identity, I have argued, could be conceptualized somewhat like a spectrum, rather than just a middle-ground category between the two—a spectrum upon which one is constantly in motion, constantly (re)negotiating one's identity. Since identity is linked so strongly to positionality, it therefore follows that if one is constantly (re)negotiating one's identity, the same process will take place with regards to one's positionality. It feels different depending on where you are with the research process, what you are doing. To elucidate, here are two brief examples developed from the research diary extracts above.

[3.2] The nerves upon requesting interviews of famous fan fiction authors were, I think, a symptom of a shift more toward the fan end of the spectrum. I was more aware of myself as a fan of their work than as a student carrying out research; the power relations felt like they had shifted—some had turned and were acting on me instead of being propagated by me. This was a contravention of everything I had read previously regarding acafandom, where the power was assumed to all be in the hands of the researcher (Bode 2008; Jenkins 2008; Fathallah 2017). It is likely that most of it still is, and it does not mean that academics can stop thinking about and taking responsibility for the power relations created by their research; however, the experience made me realize that sometimes my identity as a fan, and my position as a small, quiet author in my corner of AO3, will override the woman with research training and a project to complete.

[3.3] An instance in which the opposite occurred can be seen in the third example from the section above, where I was discussing texts with my interviewees. Here, I felt very much the awkward academic, bringing the opinions of all these Dead White Men into the sphere of majority female/nonbinary discussion and experience. During these exchanges, through which my interviewees were generally quite critical of the theorists, I found myself feeling like I had to side with my interviewees, like I had to shift myself further back down the spectrum toward fan and away from academic.

[3.4] Positionality could, to go even further, be related to the actual facts of knowledge production. Depending on how one constructs oneself as either a fan or an academic, it might depend how work is written or carried out—for example, someone more to the academic end of the spectrum might focus on relating fan knowledge to existing academic theory, whereas a researcher more on the fan end might focus more on fannish knowledge as a different kind of knowledge but still valid in its own right, or use it as a critique of academic theory. The likeliest result, with identity, positionality, and knowledge production, is going to be some kind of middle ground; but even within that, there are questions of which end of the spectrum is prioritized at any one given moment—which end of the spectrum will provide the most useful critical goggles with which to analyze any particular knowledge claims. Take, for example, the famous Roland Barthes essay "The Death of the Author" (1977). It makes interesting points about refusing to fix the meaning of a text and about the prioritization of the reader. However, as Kristina Busse (2017) points out, authorial identity is still extremely important for marginalized people, and the minute women and nonwhite people began to obtain the esteemed position of author, that pedestal began being ripped down by the white male academy. In this way, she appears to be using her background as a fan studies scholar, and perhaps as a fan herself, to set her position up in opposition to that of Roland Barthes and by extension the white male academy that has been the hegemonic narrative until recently, thus challenging the knowledges produced.

4. Concluding thoughts

[4.1] The most important thing about positionality is that it does not finish when the data collection finishes, and it carries on into the process of analyzing and writing up. Choosing arguments and data to prioritize is an exercise of power, and therefore positionality should still be present as a voice in the back of your mind, looking over your decisions and asking why you have chosen this particular respondent over another, or whether you are prioritizing one set of opinions in favor of another. Are you making a decision as a fan or as an academic? I found that it was harder to see myself as a fan when I had stepped away from the actual process of interviewing—I was still participating in fannish culture as I wrote up the dissertation, but suddenly it was as if this big divide between the two had sprung up.

[4.2] Perhaps a remedy would just be to keep the duality of your researching identity in the back of your mind as you write; being an acafan means that you are writing a representation that comes from your own personal experience—it means you, the researcher, understand where your participants are coming from, because often you have been there, too. You are not commenting on something you do not know, like Benedict Cumberbatch did regarding Sherlock fan fiction (Minkel 2014); instead, you are embracing the in-betweenness of your role as both a fan and an academic. It has to be an embrace. There are rarely any easy answers when it comes to questions of identity and power relations—it is why we discuss them so endlessly. However, leaning in and embracing the complexity that exists throughout the entire research process and being aware of the fact that identity and positionality exist on spectrums that you are either at the mercy of or can use as a useful tool of knowledge production means that we might be more alert to the shifts in them or able to use them to our advantage.

5. References

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image-Music-Text., Translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana.

Bode, Dana L. 2008 "And Now, a Word from the Amateurs," Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.

Busse, Kristina. 2017. Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Abingdon: Routledge.

De Jong, Anna. 2015 "Using Facebook as a Space for Storytelling in Geographical Research," Geographical Research, 53 (2): 211–23.

De Kosnik, Abigail. 2016. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Dixon, Deborah P., and John Paul Jones III. 2006. "Feminist Geographies of Difference, Relation, and Construction." In Approaches to Human Geography, edited by Stuart Aitken and Gill Valentine, 42–56. London: Sage.

Dwyer, Claire, and Melanie Limb. 2001. "Introduction: Doing Qualitative Research in Geography." In Qualitative Methodologies for Geographers: Issues and Debates,1–21. London: Arnold.

Fathallah, Judith. 2017. Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Cultural Texts. Amsterdam University Press.

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy. 2006. "The Practice of Feminist In-Depth Interviewing." In The Practice of Qualitative Interviewing, edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, 111–48, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Interview with Henry Jenkins, conducted by TWC Editor. Transformative Works and Cultures, no 1.

Minkel, Elizabeth. 2014. "Why It Doesn't Matter What Benedict Cumberbatch Thinks of Sherlock Fanfiction," New Statesman, October 17, 2014.

Rose, Gillian. 1997. "Situating Knowledges: Positionality, Reflexivities and Other Tactics." Progress in Human Geography 21 (3): 305–20.

Sánchez, Luis. 2010. "Positionality." In Encyclopaedia of Geography, edited by Barney Warf, 2258. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

TWC Editor. 2008. "Transforming Academic and Fan Cultures" [editorial]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no 1.