I’m really interested in the ways we define fandom. Is it just associated with popular culture, or is it a more fundamental aspect of human life? I’m going to use this blog to work through my thoughts on this matter, so it isn’t by any means a completed document, and I will do my best to organize it and indicate updates as I go.
One way to define if a fandom is present appears to be by focusing on the object of affection at the center of that fandom. I’m going to go all philosopher and call it the “objet d’affection” to indicate that there is something that people love.
Coming out of critical/cultural studies, most fandoms defined tend to revolve around popular culture texts — with the “popular” eliding with the sense of a text being well liked by many different people — and sometimes with “folk” or the sense that it is the culture of the commoners. Building off Henry Jenkins and others, fan studies tends to focus on those popular culture texts that allow consumers in a capitalist structure to have power against/with the elites who produce those texts.
In a sense, this further relates fan studies with folklore studies for how folklore focuses on what non-elites in a society or culture create and use in their everyday lives. Traditionally, however, fan studies focuses on objets that originate in the Hollywood or some similar production system because of this interest in an imbalanced power dynamic.
But does that mean other things cannot be the objet d’affection?
I think about where I grew up: Northeastern Wisconsin. Yes, our biggest fandom revolves around the Packers, and that imbalanced power dynamic exists (although, not as much, because the fans are the team’s owners). But there are other objets that we love: like booyah. Booyah is a type of stew seemingly specific to our region, and it has devotees who have specific ways they claim to make the stew. The stew is celebrated — my family was even on a television series showing how much we celebrate it.
So are we fans of booyah? Is booyah an objet d’affection?
The objet does not align with commonly used definitions, but are there other ways to determine if it is a fandom?
I’ve seen this phrase “fannish behaviors” used to identify when a person or community outside of popular culture are in some way a fandom; thus, this phrase appears to signify whether to define a fandom. But what are “fannish behaviors”? How do we know it when we see it?
Behaviors can be internal or external and are often connected in some complex way to each other. External behavior is observable acts while internal behavior involve cognitive and affective acts. Any behavior, of course, is embodied, with more or less awareness on the part of the person behaving.
Given its use of ethnographies, it makes sense that many fan studies tend to consider external behaviors more than internal behaviors. The observable lends itself to a more critical gaze than the reportable, where the validity of what is reported is questionable. Interviews, questionnaires, focus groups can help to provide insight into the reportable, but, well, people lie or don’t remember or don’t know why they do what they do. And given the amount produced through external behaviors that can be recorded and shared, it makes sense that observations and document analyses prevail in fan studies.
Taxonomy of Fan Activities
If certain behaviors (i.e. external and/or internal activities) can be classified and measured as the means of determining if “fandom” is present, then what are those activities being used for such criteria? When we say something is “fannish,” what are we pointing to? What qualities does the behavior have that signify it as representing fandom?
Here’s where taxonomies come in. Classification schemes to dissect and divide. Yeah, pretty natural / social sciency to do, but doing so can help for definitional purposes as well as application outside of popular culture.
In Fractured Fandoms I had an attempt at such a taxonomy when I wrote about five types of fan activity: identifying, discussing, attending, producing, and performing. Various specific fan activities would then be identified across these five types, and these activities can be found with labels such as: repeatedly returning, fan labor, lovebor, fan fiction, fan art, fan activism, fan play, fan discourse, poaching, recoding, transformative, squeeing, collecting, trivia. Other fan activities would include those necessary to build, maintain, and even dissolve a fan community, which can be a range of communicative and material behaviors that are communal, social, and ultimately relational.
Two points I see here: first, all of these are external behaviors; second, they are all activities that exist outside of fandom and use “fan” as an adjective to qualify that activity as a “fannish behavior.”
I will get to the latter in a moment, but I want to highlight how the issue of “fan” as an adjective is the crux of the matter. If it is being used to modify activities to make them “fit” into fandom, then what is it about “fan” that allows such modification to happen? What does it mean to say “labor” versus “fan labor”? Or “fiction” versus “fan fiction”? What separates these two, and why does that separation matter?
Indeed, I think it is the internal behaviors that help us to explain that modifying power of “fan.” If the external, observable behaviors exist in a different state due to fandom, then there is something about the internal behaviors in the doing and perceiving of these activities that generates a switch from “that” type of behavior to “fannish behavior.”
Internal behaviors can largely be seen as affective/emotional reactions and cognitive/interpretive stances. Thus, how we perceive the objet d’affection and how we feel about it.
For the affective/emotional, the focus in fandom is largely on “love” which is positioned as warm, positive, happy, joyful, content, satisfaction, excitement, comfort, acceptance, etc. It’s an embodied feeling of warmth towards the objet.
For the cognitive/interpretive, it seems to involve seeing the objet as important, relevant, useful, reinforcing, influencing, binding, motivating. It’s related to how the person sees themselves, others, and the world.
Now, all of this is why I see fandom as an attitude, or attitudes: for the external behaviors to come about, internal behaviors have to be involved. So if we have a particular affective and cognitive reaction to the objet, it can then drive our activities in relation to that objet. Those activities get connected with one’s self-identification as a fan and association with a fandom and/or fan community. Through such connections, the activities become “fannish behaviors” or symbolic performances and interactions that help others identify the nature of a person, develop expectations for how to engage with that person, and thereby facilitates social interaction.
Per uncertainty reduction theory, we like to manage our anxiety when it comes to communication and socially interacting with people we don’t know, so as to not cause problems for them or ourselves. Knowing a person’s fandom can help to develop ideas as to what to say and how to say it to that person. So we identify these external behaviors as “fannish” to identify the fan, rather than ask someone if they are a fan and go from there. We like to observe without asking because, again, anxiety. So we focus on using external behaviors to determine internal behaviors and thus create expectations for interaction that allow us to manage our anxieties.
We are a very anxious species (makes sense, given our evolutionary ancestors have been both hunter and hunted), so if we can see or hear something that helps us understand someone or something, then we are going to use it, even subconsciously, to influence our interactions. It’s one reason why the gender binary is to hard to break or why racism operates as an implicit bias in basically everyone.
But what does this mean for how we define fandom and apply it outside of popular culture? If someone, like QAnon, has fannish behaviors, internal and/external, does that mean it is a fandom?
Fandom as Attitude
I think the two most common ways of defining fandom is to see it as the objet d’affection or as the fan community. If objet, then we are talking about the thing we love and that love is expressed through fannish behaviors. If community, then we are talking about the relationships built around that objet with others who love it in similar ways.
I am more interested in defining fandom as an attitude. I am thinking about how fandom operates as a learned predisposition toward the objet. Attitudes are combinations of beliefs and feelings about “things” (aka attitude objects) that influence behavioral intentions that could become external behaviors (i.e. actions) given the person’s perception of the context or situation in which the action will occur.
To be a fan is to engage in fannish external and internal behaviors, consciously and/or subconsciously. Thus, to be a fan is to have a fandom attitude toward the objet. A fandom attitude involves beliefs and feelings favorable (fannish internal behaviors) to the objet (attitude object) that then informs fannish external behaviors of identification, discussion, connection, and production.
Attitude consistency may be key here, then. As different objets d’affection could occur within a fandom, fannish internal behaviors may need to be consistent in regard to all these objets to determine fannish external behaviors — as inconsistency could cause dissonance and detachment from the fandom. The more consistency across fandom attitudes, the more likely to engage in fannish behaviors.
Such consistency and connection between attitudes could also help explain how a fandom emerges. Fandoms cannot manifest from nothingness. A person’s engaging with the objet is not a tabula rasa situation. It is informed by preexisting cognitive/interpretive stances that suggest someone may be more or less likely to fan (i.e. engage in fannish behavior)* in response to the objet. If the objet relates to a previously existing attitude, then a fan attitude may be more likely to occur, and again the consistency would be more likely to lead to fannish behaviors.
When becoming a fan, their attitude toward the objet d’affection intensifies through more powerful affect and emotions that then helps cement beliefs towards the objet to create a stronger attitude that then activates in different areas of life. When people “fan”* something, their attitude towards it strengthens. Stronger attitudes are more likely to be invoked in relevant situations and are more likely to involve consistency between the attitude and the activity.
Symbolic convergence theory can help identify the presence of such shared attitudes within a fan community. Per the theory, a community converges and coheres through the shared of fantasy themes (aka perceptions aka attitudes) about itself in relation to others. Such fantasy themes manifest symbolically through how community members communicate to each other and to outsiders. A consistency in the attitudes across all members would be seen in their external behaviors that would then be classified as fannish. The more consistent these fannish external behaviors across a community, the more likely it is a fan community, and the more likely that fan community has consistency in its fannish internal behaviors.
Furthermore, seeing fandom as attitudes means that they are connected to other attitudes, either because those other attitudes pre-existed the fandom one(s) or because the fandom attitude led to other ones. Thus, fandom attitudes can be activated by non-fandom attitudes, and vice versa, if they share connected beliefs and emotions. Since fandom attitudes are by their very nature strong, they are more likely to activate and be activated by other attitudes. Thus, a non-fandom situation can involve fandom, and a fandom situation can involve other attitudes and their related ideologies.
In this way, seeing fandom as attitudes means we can see objets and communities we would not normally classify as fandom, like QAnon, and find a way to connect what appear to be fannish external behaviors with fannish internal behaviors. Doing so suggests that fandom is an inherently important aspect of life — and not just in relation to popular entertainment or any form of entertainment.
Fandom is important for life as it drives action in various aspects of our lives. We don’t just fan sports, media, food, etc. We can fan anything, and, in doing so, we can be moved to act.
*This verbing of “fan” needs some more work. I took to the experts (MacMillain, Oxford Learners) to understand “fan” as a verb and found these synonyms: to move, impel, stir up, agitate, refresh, spread, incite, excite, “to make a feeling or belief stronger,” and “to make a feeling, an attitude, etc. stronger.” Does “I fan…” mean “I make a stronger attitude toward…”?