Fan Culture

Fans have become important to work in media sociology and cultural studies for a variety of reasons: they can be taken to represent a dedicated, active audience; they are consumers who are often also (unofficial, but sometimes official) media producers (Jenkins 1992; McKee 2002); and they can be analyzed as a significant part of contemporary consumer culture. Fandom – the state of being a fan – is usually linked to popular culture rather than high culture. People who appreciate high culture, often being as passionately partisan as pop culture’s ‘‘fans,’’ are described as ‘‘connoisseurs’’ or ‘‘aficionados’’ rather than as fans (Jensen 1992). Whilst connoisseurship is typically deemed culturally legitimate, fandom has been analyzed as rather more problematic: the stereotype of ‘‘the fan’’ has been one of geeky, excessive, and unhealthy obsession with (supposedly) culturally trivial objects such as TV shows. Henry Jenkins has highlighted and opposed this negative fan stereotype, arguing that such portrayals of fandom should be critiqued, and that fans should instead be viewed more positively as building their own culture out of media pro ducts, and as selectively ‘‘poaching’’ meanings and interpretations from favored media texts. Jenkins, whose seminal work Textual Poachers (1992) helped to make fandom a viable object of academic study, suggests that the creativity of fans is downplayed in cultural common sense in favor of viewing fans as ‘‘cultural dupes’’ who are perfect consumers, always accepting what the culture industry produces for them. Against this narrative, depicted as belonging to the Frankfurt School of Marxist theorists such as Theodor Adorno as much as to forms of cultural common sense, Jenkins argues that fans discriminate keenly between and within their objects of fandom, developing an aesthetic sense of what counts as a ‘‘good’’ episode of television series such as Star Trek or Doctor Who (see Tulloch & Jenkins 1995).

Fans develop extensive knowledge and expertise about their shows or sports teams, also characteristically feeling a sense of owner ship over ‘‘their’’ object of fandom. They also ‘‘tend to seek intimacy with the object of their attention – a personality, a program, a genre, a team’’ (Kelly 2004: 9). This ‘‘intimacy’’ could involve meeting a celebrity, getting a sports woman’s autograph, seeing an actor give a talk onstage at a convention, chatting with him or her in the bar afterwards, or even visiting real locations used in the filming of a TV series (see Hills 2002). Fans thus seek to break down barriers between themselves as subjects and their objects of fandom, their fan identity becoming a meaningful aspect of cultural and self identity. Indeed, Tulloch and Jenkins (1995: 23) distinguish between ‘‘fans,’’ who claim a cultural identity on the basis of their fandom, and ‘‘followers,’’ who despite following pop cultural texts, pop groups, TV series, and so on more than casually, do not make such an identity claim.

As can be seen from this, fandom is generally discussed in relation to media consumption and media texts, sometimes being referred to specifically as ‘‘media fandom’’ (Jenkins 1992: 1), although this prefix is often assumed. Scholars have tended to isolate out and focus on specific fandoms such as fans of science fiction film and TV (Bacon Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992); fans of soap operas (Harrington & Bielby 1995; Baym 2000); fans of the Star Wars films (Brooker 2002); fans of particular TV series and radio shows (Thomas 2002); and sports fans (Crawford 2004).

Fans and fan culture are, however, not quite the same thing. By using the term ‘‘fans’’ we can refer to individuals who have a particular liking or affection for a range of popular cultural texts, celebrities, sports (teams), or artifacts. These individuals – typically displaying an affective relationship with their fan object; that is, they are passionately interested in and committed to following their beloved pop group, sports team, or soap opera – may nevertheless not take part in socially organized fan activities. They may not attend fan conventions, be part of fan clubs, post to online fan message boards, or even attend live sporting events – instead perhaps supporting a baseball or football team by reading about games or watching them on television.

By contrast, collective activities such as convention going or fan club membership are very much indicative of what is meant by ‘‘fan culture.’’ Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst (1998: 138) mark this distinction by contrasting ‘‘fans’’ with what they term ‘‘cultists’’: the former display their fandom privately or personally rather than communally, whilst the latter are participants in communal fan cultures and activities. However, many wri ters simply use the term ‘‘fans’’ when referring to members of a fan culture (Bacon Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992; Hills 2002).

Here, fans are socialized within affective communities of fandom, and engage in subculturally distinctive fan practices such as writing their own fan fiction (‘‘fanfic’’) based on characters and situations from official films and TV shows, producing their own fan magazines (‘‘fanzines’’), writing their own lyrics to popular songs or standards (‘‘filking’’), and engaging in costuming at fan conventions by making replicas of costumes worn onscreen by film or TV actors (Jenkins 1992; Joseph Witham 1996; Hills 2002). ‘‘Fans’’ in the first, socially atomized, sense have been far less studied than ‘‘fan culture,’’ probably in part because the latter is more sociologically and culturally visible to researchers, and because such socially organized communities and practices have provided a rich terrain for media ethnographers such as Camille Bacon Smith (1992) and scholars such as Henry Jenkins (1992). Despite this partial focus in fan studies to date, scholars and students of media fandom should take care not to replay fan debates over ‘‘authenticity,’’ where socially atomized fans are considered to be somehow not ‘‘true’’ or ‘‘authentic’’ fans in comparison with those organizing or attending conventions, or regularly attending live sports matches (see Crawford 2004). Furthermore, we should take care not to always explore specific fan cultures as singular objects of study: many soap fans may also be fans of particular celebrities or popular music, and many science fiction TV fans may also be fans of horror movies, and so on. Repertoires of media fandom are thus also important, as fans move between different fan objects and navigate through intertextual networks of TV shows and films (Jenkins 1992; Hills 2002, 2004).

Although it would be fair to say that there is no singular body of work that can be counted as the ‘‘sociology of media fandom,’’ the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has nevertheless been key to studies of fan cultures. John Fiske (1992) has drawn on Bourdieu’s theorization of cultural distinction to illuminate how fans, meaning participants in fan cultures, distinguish themselves from non fan audiences. Fiske emphasizes how such fans work to accumulate ‘‘fan cultural capital’’ or ‘‘popular cultural capital,’’ namely, knowledge about, and literacy in relation to, their object of fandom. In this instance, Fiske applies and develops Bourdieu’s (1984) take on ‘‘cultural capital,’’ by which is broadly meant the level of education and ‘‘training’’ in legitimate culture and its appreciation that a cultural agent holds. Sarah Thornton and Mark Jancovich have also applied Bourdieuian theories to fandom, with Thornton (1995: 11) coining the term ‘‘subcultural capital’’ to describe that form of capital which is not common across an entire culture, but is, instead, specific to a subculture or fan culture. Hills (2002: 57) has further related Bourdieuian concepts to media fandom, discussing ‘‘fan social capital’’ (the network of contacts that a fan has within his or her fan culture) as well as fan cultural capital. This sociological focus has led to fan cultures being thought of as hierarchical rather than romanticized as anti capitalist, ‘‘resistant’’ communities magically free of power differentials and struggles over status. Many media fandoms and sports fandoms can also be analyzed as male dominated cultural groups as well as middle class dominated elective affinities, meaning that Bourdieu’s emphasis on structural inequality in the distribution of forms of capital, beyond economic capital (money) alone, remains important here.

Nick Couldry (2003) has suggested that Bourdieu’s work is somewhat weakened by its lack of focus on the operation of the media in relation to ‘‘symbolic capital’’ (prestige), arguing that sociologists should consider the ‘‘media’s meta capital’’ (p. 672), through which ‘‘what counts as symbolic capital in particular fields’’ is altered (p. 668). Thus, fans who become regular sources for the media – or who run popular message boards or websites/ Internet news sites – may not merely be reflecting their already acquired fan cultural capital. Rather, by virtue of their own role within mass or niche mediation, these fans, people such as cinephile Harry Knowles (founder of or Doctor Who fan Shaun Lyon (founder of, may be accruing and exercising ‘‘media meta capital.’’ Such fans can even become ‘‘subcultural celebrities’’ in their own right (Hills 2003), being recognized and respected by many others in their sub culture or fan culture, while being largely unknown outside this subculture.

Alongside the importance of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) work on forms of capital, other key theories within recent work on fandom have been those of performance (Abercrombie & Longhurst 1998; Lancaster 2001) and performativity (Hills 2002; Thomas 2002; Crawford 2004). In particular, and drawing on Judith Butler’s work, Matt Hills (2002) has suggested that fans should not be thought of either as ‘‘consummate consumers’’ (Kelly 2004: 7) or as ‘‘cultural dupes’’ in thrall to the culture industry. Rather, Hills (2002: 159) suggests that fans display ‘‘performative consumption,’’ performing their identities as fans in ways that are simultaneously highly self reflexive or self aware and non reflexive or self absent, given that they cannot always account for why they became fans in the first place (Harrington & Bielby 1995). Crawford (2004: 122) applies Hills’s concept to sports fans, finding it to be of use here. The notion of ‘‘performative consumption’’ indicates that we should not treat fandom via a sociological either/or, where fans are either agents whose fan cultural practices can be celebrated, or they are subjects whose fan cultural practices can be accounted for, and critiqued, as effects of structural/capitalist forces. It also suggests that depth psychology or psychoanalytic theories may be useful in exploring aspects of fan identities that operate below the level of discursive consciousness (and a number of writers have pursued post Freudian and sociologically contextualized discussions of this: see Harrington & Bielby 1995; Hills 2002).

In short, media fandom acutely poses problems of ‘‘structure’’ versus ‘‘agency’’ that have dogged contemporary sociological debate, and although Bourdieu’s work has been influential in work on fan cultures, surprisingly little attention has yet been paid to utilizing other competing theories of structuration such as those of, for example, Anthony Giddens and Margaret Archer, although J. B. Thompson and Sean McCloud have sociologically analyzed fandom as a ‘‘late modern project of the self ’’ (McCloud 2003: 199), using the Giddens of Modernity and Self Identity (1991) rather than The Constitution of Society (1984).

As the sociology of media fandom moves toward maturity, we might therefore expect further work on structuration theory, as well as further applications of post Marxist work on commodification and post Durkheimian work on ritual and the ‘‘collective effervescence’’ of contemporary neotribes (Hills 2002). Work to date has either tended to push toward the status of a general theory of media fandom (Hills 2002), or it has taken specific (and limited) fan cultures as objects of study (see McKee 2002). These maneuvers have left a range of comparative questions open: are all fan cultures similarly structured through issues of ‘‘fan cultural capital’’ and ‘‘fan social capital’’? And are fan cultures in Japan, say, structurally and affectively similar to those in the US? Indeed, what of transnational fan cultures? A research agenda relating fandom to matters of globalization has yet to be fully pursued, although one major research project under way at the University of Aberystwyth, and headed up by Martin Barker, promises to deal with the transnational consumption and meanings of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. Fans and fan cultures have offered one test case for theories of audience ‘‘activity’’ (Fiske 1992) and ‘‘performance’’ (Abercrombie & Longhurst 1998), as well as allowing for the ethnographic exploration of fan communities (Bacon Smith 1992), but the study of fandom continues to face many challenges and new opportunities.


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  22. Tulloch, J. & Jenkins, H. (1995) Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. Routledge, London and New York.

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